Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series analyzing the case of Oswaldo Martinez, a 48-year-old deaf-mute undocumented immigrant accused of killing a 16-year-old girl in James City County in 2005.
Part one delves into immigration law, and how it impacts the Martinez case as he awaits trial. The stories published ahead of an Oct. 31 hearing in the Supreme Court of Virginia, where Martinez’s attorney is challenging his continued, indefinite detention.
For nearly 14 years, 47-year-old Oswaldo Elias Martinez has been in state custody, attending hours of classes and sessions with experts to learn how to communicate.
Yet, after more than a decade, the unresolved rape and murder of a teenage girl and an open accusation looms over him with one steady fact: He still isn’t competent to face a trial.
Martinez, who is deaf and mute, was arrested in 2005 in connection with the rape and murder 16-year-old Brittany Binger in James City County. After a series of evaluations, it was apparent Martinez didn’t know how to communicate.
“The big picture issue here is that the vast majority of defendants are found competent. It’s a really rare scenario where somebody cannot be restored and it poses a dilemma to the system,” said Daniel Murrie, a professor of psychiatry & neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia.
The rarity of Martinez’s case lies in a complex issue with competency: Since he was arrested in connection with Binger’s death, experts not only found him to be incompetent to stand trial, but also determined that he may never be restored to competency.
Martinez is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who, because of his language deficiencies because of being deaf and mute, has been held in the legal system for nearly 14 years with no immediate end in sight.
“Very rarely are people found incompetent, and those who are, usually about 80 percent can be restored within six months,” Murrie said.
The Supreme Court of Virginia understands competency as whether a defendant can understand the legal proceedings in a factual and logical manner and assist their attorney, Murrie said.
Complications in competency
Martinez has been in a holding pattern, not competent to go to trial, but not releasable because of the nature of the capital charges against him.
Martinez has debilitating communication issues which prevent him from understanding enough information to be competent in court. An assessment in court documents from 2005 showed Martinez had severe hearing loss in both ears, which creates learning difficulties in both expressing language and understanding it.
By law, defendants like Martinez with competency issues have a right to treatment with the goal of restoring competency, Murrie said.
Competency restoration means a defendant will receive continued treatment for additional six-month periods without limitation, then complete an evaluation at the end of each period to determine if they remain incompetent or not, according to court documents.
Over the years, Martinez has been at medical and psychiatric facilities working with specialists on different modes of competency restoration, from learning sign language, to receiving a cochlear implant — none of which have worked to bring him to competency.
Yet, even with the restoration efforts through sign language, Martinez awaits a trial that may never come.
In his competency tests from 2013, records explained that Martinez might never be competent to stand trial because he doesn’t have a first language. This makes it particularly difficult to teach him because he doesn’t have a base of grammatical rules which are necessary in understanding conversation.
As a result, Martinez was deemed “unrestorably incompetent” from a 2015 assessment, according to court documents, meaning that he may never be at a competency level to stand trial.
Which begs the question: How much longer will he have to be held by the criminal justice system?
Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green, who has been involved in the case since being elected in 2007, realizes this situation has created a legal knot in the system.
“How does somebody who was able to travel from El Salvador to the U.S. get a job, work, go to restaurants, order food, order drinks — how do you say that person can’t communicate sufficiently for a trial,” Green said. “I share that frustration, but it’s more complex.”
Taking it to court
Martinez’s court-appointed attorney, Tim Clancy, brought the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia Wednesday morning to argue that Martinez has been denied his right to a speedy trial.
Clancy argues a second point, that Martinez’s treatments to restore his competency are educational in nature, which, he says, is not a proper interpretation of Virginia Code.
Green, however, interprets the code to mean a treatment doesn’t have to be medical in nature.
Typically, a large majority of cases can be restored through medical means, Murrie said, because they involve psychological issues, like delusions or schizophrenia.
Those medical treatments are often paired with educational methods as well, he said.
But part of the issue is that as Martinez awaits trial, the efforts for restoring competency don’t seem to be working and Martinez also can’t be released because he is charged with a capital offense.
In 2016, a report from Central State Hospital where he was being held, showed that Martinez still showed little improvement, despite restoration treatments including classes with mock courtrooms and competency restoration groups. Doctors at the hospital noted Martinez displayed inappropriate sexual behaviors, such as touching himself and groping female members of staff.
Martinez also made a suicide attempt in that same year, the same report indicated.
The motion argues for a release of Martinez because he has been denied his right to a speedy trial. But as a result of his six-month reviews from 2013-2017, a judge wrote an opinion saying Martinez was a harm to himself and others, making him unfit for release with or without a trial.
“I don’t question the experts who say he cannot communicate sufficiently for a trial,” Green said. “…(but) a competency issue stalls the clock.”