Juror insists hearing impairment no barrier to sitting on jury


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At age 31, Christopher Bennett had never been called to jury duty before. 

So when he got a summons telling him to report to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas criminal division this week, he was surprised. He thought it unlikely that he would be chosen — Mr. Bennett has been deaf since birth. 

But both sides agreed he would be a fine juror, and he was chosen for a seat in the case of the commonwealth v. Joshua Thompson.

“Honestly, I was shocked. Because I‘‍m deaf, I thought they’‍d automatically dismiss me,” Mr. Bennett said Friday.

Instead, the court provided two American Sign Language interpreters to work with him, and the case began.

The jury returned a mixed verdict Friday afternoon.

Mr. Thompson, who was accused of harassing neighbors in his Shadyside apartment building and the officers sent to investigate back in 2012, was found guilty of multiple counts of stalking and harassment and not guilty of aggravated assault, terroristic threats, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He will be sentenced by Judge Philip A. Ignelzi on Sept. 25. 

Throughout the trial, Mr. Bennett sat in the front row of the jury box staring intently at either Pamela Replogle or Tracy Cummins, who are both certified interpreters with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. 

The two women switched back and forth every 20 minutes or so — at a convenient break in the case — to make sure they stayed fresh and didn’‍t get overly fatigued. 

“It‘‍s very taxing — both mentally and physically,” Ms. Replogle said. 

While they interpreted, the women sat in a chair next to the witness stand. 

Under the Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf, which sets ethics codes and standards, any interpreting assignment that will last more than two hours, particularly in something technically advanced, requires two interpreters. That way, Ms. Cummins said, the interpreters can keep tabs on each other and take note if there are any problems. 

“As an interpreter, our goal is for people to forget we’‍re here,” she said. 

Even though criminal cases are filled with technical, legal jargon, Mr. Bennett said he had no problems understanding the words signed by his interpreters. 

Although it‘‍s not unusual for a juror to nod off during particularly slow or tedious testimony, Mr. Bennett said that was never a problem for him. 

“It’‍s important to pay attention to the words,” he said. “I decided I’‍m going to stay awake.”

As for using his hearing impairment to get out of jury duty, Mr. Bennett said he never considered it. 

“I’‍ve learned to live my life, you know. I‘‍ve learned I need to be a part of the world,” he said. “I’‍m not supposed to use my deafness as an excuse. 

“My mother pushed me into the world to be involved in all of life’‍s actions.” 

About 10 relatives on his father’‍s side are deaf, Mr. Bennett said, so he is used to sign language and rapid-fire conversation when it occurs. His mother speaks English, Spanish and American Sign Language.

Mr. Bennett said he had no problems in his jury service, and that the people on his panel were great. 

“We got along well. We understood each other, and we had patience with each other,” he said. “There were no feelings of them patronizing me or looking down on me because I’‍m deaf, and I love the group for that.” 

Before deliberations began, the interpreters had to take an oath agreeing to abide by the sanctity of the process -- and not to interject any of their own thoughts into discussions.

Mr. Bennett, who works as a housekeeper for UPMC, said he found himself meditating about the case and the issues it involved.

“It was very different,” he said. ”I learned so much about life in general. It was a wonderful experience.” 

Both the interpreters and Mr. Bennett credited Judge Ignelzi for being understanding and accommodating throughout the process. 

“Everyday we have interpreters somewhere, whether at an [distric justice] office or in the Court of Common Pleas,” said Claire Capristo, court administrator. 

Spanish is the language most often needed, but she said that sign language is requested two or three times per week. 

Although it is common to interpret for victims, defendants and family members, both interpreters said they had never before interpreted for a deaf juror sitting on a case in Allegheny County. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, anyone providing a service to a deaf person must provide an accommodation — including interpreters — to the individual at no cost. 

Ms. Cummins often interprets for college courses, and she said her husband jokes she should have earned 20 degrees by now. She can go from interpreting at the birth of a baby to a funeral to a business meeting. 

“My days are never the same,” she said. “I enjoy that.”


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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