Juror’s problems with English prompts mistrial for sex assault suspect


Highlights

Coria-Gonzalez, 27, is accused of attacking seven women in North Austin between December 2015 and July 2016.

A juror said he could not serve on the jury because of his limited English.

Nicodemo Coria-Gonzalez was set to go to trial this week in Travis County in connection to a string of violent attacks against women, including one who said Coria-Gonzalez sexually assaulted her while threatening her with a knife, and another who accused him of dousing her in gasoline.

But his trial ended before having started after a juror on Tuesday revealed he struggles with English and would not be able to understand complex legal terms.

The disclosure came prior to opening statements and prompted state District Judge David Crain to declare a mistrial in the state’s aggravated sexual assault case against Coria-Gonzalez.

Police have accused Coria-Gonzalez, 27, of attacking seven women, some of them prostitutes, between December 2015 and July 2016. He has been deported five times to Mexico for past criminal convictions.

The case this week would’ve focused on just one of the attacks. The victim says she was threatened with a knife and sexually assaulted in April 2016. If Coria-Gonzalez had been convicted, prosecutors said they would’ve presented evidence about the other attacks during the trial’s sentencing phase. He faces up to 99 years in prison.

“The victim is very, very cooperative,” prosecutor Amy Meredith said.

During jury selection Monday, the man with the English troubles never mentioned anything to the judge and in fact interacted with lawyers who were vetting candidates, defense attorney Selena Alvarenga said.

Crain had excused other potential jurors who said they were uncomfortable with judging someone else. More were excused by lawyers, who are allowed to strike 10 candidates per side, leaving no room at the end of the panel to include any alternates on the jury.

The language issue arose Tuesday morning when jurors were making small talk while waiting for the proceedings to begin. The man told others he attended school in China and could understand only half of what anyone was saying, juror Hank Faulkner said. The comment made it to Crain’s bailiff, who passed it along to the judge.

Crain called the man into the courtroom, and the man said he had been in the United States for 20 years working as an engineer, but speaks only enough English to get by. Crain asked him why he didn’t mention something sooner, but the judge did not appear to understand the answer. Crain told the lawyers they could proceed with 11 jurors, if both sides agreed to it. Prosecutors were willing, but the defense objected.

“We wanted to make sure our client gets his 12 jurors and his constitutional rights protected,” Alvarenga said.

“When (the juror) indicated he had a hard time with the legal concepts we were using, I figured if we let him stay on the panel we were setting ourselves up for reversal (on appeal),” Crain said.

Crain inquired about bringing in a member of a jury panel in another trial at the courthouse, but was told there were none available.

The man declined to comment as he got into an elevator to leave the courthouse.

Crain’s staff later reset the case for trial on Sept. 17. Crain said he’ll beef up the jury pool to 90 to ensure alternates will be available.

Retired state District Judge Jon Wisser said it’s common for potential jurors who do not speak fluent English to struggle with legalese. But they usually disclose it before they are picked for the jury, he said.

“It’s an increasing problem all over the United States, but certainly in Austin,” Wisser said. “Not just (with) Spanish-speaking (people), but people from other countries who speak some English, but not enough to understand the intricacies of the law.”

Police say Coria-Gonzalez confessed to picking up “prostitutes” in North Austin and taking them to his “garden” off Ferguson Road for consensual sex. He said he would get angry and beat the women after they raised the price they had agreed upon, according to an arrest affidavit.

Coria-Gonzalez has been jailed since August 2016 on bail set at $1.4 million. He faces six counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of robbery and one count of sexual assault.

Prosecutors say one of the alleged victims, a 68-year-old woman who walked with a cane, was assaulted in July 2016 after accepting a ride to a store from Coria-Gonzalez, who they say picked her up in the 700 block of St. Johns Avenue.

A day earlier, Coria-Gonzalez is accused of dumping gasoline on a woman who said she was taken to a wooded area after getting into his car at a bus stop at St. Johns and Grand Canyon.

Police said they linked Coria-Gonzalez to the attacks through the Acura CL he drives. Many victims said he was driving the vehicle when he gave them rides. The car was captured on surveillance video at a convenience store where he had taken one of the women to buy cigarettes in June 2016, police said.

Faulkner, the juror who spoke with the American-Statesman, said he was disappointed over the abrupt ending to the trial and was looking forward to hearing the facts in the case.

“A bunch of people didn’t want to be picked, but, once we were picked, everyone was fired up about it,” he said.



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