Oswaldo Martinez, a deaf and mute man who allegedly raped and killed a 16-year-old James City County girl in 2005, appeared in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on Tuesday. The court heard testimony from several experts about Martinez’s competency to stand trial.
Martinez, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, has yet to stand trial for the incident. He has instead appeared before the court many times since 2005.
At Tuesday’s hearing, his attorneys argued he is not competent to stand trial because he is not fluent in any language, including sign language, rendering him unable to communicate. The chances of him learning to communicate, they said, is close to zero. The prosecution argued Martinez can eventually be instructed in language to such a degree that is sufficient for him to go to trial.
Martinez is currently receiving treatment at Central State Hospital in Petersburg in an effort to make him competent to stand trial by instructing him in sign language.
After lengthy testimonies from psychologists and academics at Tuesday’s hearing, Judge William Shaw ruled Martinez will return to Central State to continue treatment. Their testimonies delved into such topics as the means by which children learn language, the success rates of teaching language to people who did not have it in their formative years and Martinez’s education level.
Martinez was facing five charges: two counts of capital murder, one count of rape, one count of robbery and one count of forcible sodomy. Though Martinez is accused of killing one person, the second murder charge was filed since capital murder is sought when the murder is carried out in the commission of another serious crime. By pairing one charge with rape and the other with robbery, the prosecution aimed to make sure one of the capital murder charges stuck in case the jury in a potential trial decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence of a robbery or a rape.
Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth Attorney Nate Green has filed paperwork to drop one charge each of rape, robbery and forcible sodomy that Martinez faces in connection to the crime. In cases where the defendant is incompetent to stand trial, they can be held without a trial for the maximum length of the sentence to that crime or five years, whichever is less. The one exception to this rule is a capital murder charge, which allows the defendant to be held indefinitely.
Green said the three dropped charges can be re-indicted if Martinez is found competent to stand trial.
Shaw wondered how long this process can continue at the hearing.
“Suppose it takes him 20 years to become competent,” Shaw asked, “is that due process?”
Attorneys for Martinez argued he will never be competent to stand trial, citing the testimony of experts who said that while he has had limited success in learning vocabulary words, he has not made any progress with learning syntax and grammar. Without an understanding of those concepts, the concern is Martinez will not be able to consult with his attorneys during the trial or understand statements from those who are testifying.
Green said the commonwealth is taking steps to solve the problem of Martinez’s incompetency by holding him at Central State Hospital where he is receiving treatment. Martinez is making progress with learning sign language, Green said.
Carolyn Corbett, an associate professor of psychology at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., university that serves the deaf, said there is little point to continue sign language classes as he won’t pick up the grammar or syntax necessary to attain competency. She likened his situation to knowing vocabulary words like “restaurant” and “bathroom” in French but not being able to use the language to such a degree that would be necessary to stand trial there.
“I don’t believe he will be able to go much further than this,” Corbett said.
Martinez was arrested after police matched DNA samples from him to those found on the victim’s body, according to an article from the William and Mary Law Review that outlined the details of the murder and investigation.
According to that article, investigators found semen inside the girl’s body, DNA under her fingernails and on a juice bottle left next to her body that all matched. A tracking dog led them first to a convenience store and then to a local bar where they learned of Martinez. Surveillance tape from the store showed Martinez buying a bottle of juice that matched the one found by the body.
Police watched Martinez drink a beer at the bar and then took the bottle and swabbed DNA from it for testing. That DNA matched the DNA found at the scene, according to the article.
The next hearing on the matter will be 11 a.m. Sept. 9 in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court.