Judge tosses DUI conviction for deaf man

A local attorney is heralding Thursday's dismissal of a five-year-old DUI conviction in Benton County District Court as a victory for deaf people.

William M. Kral, 33, of Snoqualmie, who is deaf, was arrested in December 2005 in Benton County on suspicion of DUI and driving with a suspended license, said attorney Moe Spencer of Kennewick.

But when Kral was arraigned, no sign language interpreter was available in the courtroom. When he signed a paper waiving his constitutional right to a speedy trial, the interpreter who explained the document to him was unqualified, Spencer said.

Kral was convicted and served a nine-month sentence that included three months in an alcohol treatment program. He paid more than $4,600 in fines.

In the next five years, Kral went through appeals and several court-appointed attorneys whom he claims ignored or mishandled his case or had to step aside because of conflicts.

Then in August, Kral won his argument that his constitutional rights had been violated because of the lack of a qualified sign language interpreter. Judge Robert Swisher ordered the case back to District Court to be dismissed, and the conviction overturned.

The end of what Kral described as a "very long battle" came Thursday when District Court Judge Dan Kathren officially threw out Kral's conviction and ordered the $4,600 in fines returned to him.

"I certainly agree Kral is entitled to money he paid as a result of a conviction that is no longer a conviction," Kathren said.

But despite the crux of the case being the court's lack of a qualified interpreter, Spencer had to bring in a professional sign language interpreter Thursday because there still isn't one employed by the court.

Kral told the Herald through interpreter Shelly Hansen that the person who interpreted for him on the day he signed the speedy trial waiver told him he was agreeing to a continuance -- basically a temporary delay of his hearing.

"I never found out I had signed a waiver for speedy trial until two weeks or a month later," he said. "About the same time, I found out the interpreter did not have formal training or a (sign language) certification. The way he translated, I thought it was clear it was a continuance. I didn't have a reason to doubt."

The interpreter in the courtroom that day was actually a Spanish-language interpreter who knew a little sign language, according to Spencer's appeal brief.

The brief said Kral asked several times for a court-certified interpreter because he wanted someone who could accurately explain complicated legal issues. Kral also told the court that the interpreters used were signing incorrectly or that he didn't understand them.

The brief said Kral's then-attorney also communicated with him using handwritten notes, but Kral couldn't understand what his attorney was writing.

Swisher agreed that Kral's agreeing to waive his right to a speedy trial was "unintelligent and not knowing," Spencer said.

Kral lost his hearing when he became ill with spinal meningitis when he was 9 months old. Spencer's brief said research shows people who become deaf before age 3 have difficulty with language and tend to have a median of a fourth-grade reading level, mostly because written English is based on translating symbols into sounds -- sounds they never have learned.

Kral said he lost his construction job in the Tri-Cities and his then-girlfriend because of the DUI conviction.

He now operates heavy equipment in the Seattle area, is married and has a 2-year-old son. But Kral said the years since his conviction have been "very tough."

"I just kept on fighting," he said. "This issue is not about money and not about me personally. It's about making sure deaf people get equal access and to try to raise that awareness."