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State v. Abdul Aziz

Court of Appeals of Utah

January 25, 2018

State of Utah, Appellee,
Adel Adnan Abdul Aziz, Appellant.

         Third District Court, West Jordan Department The Honorable Mark S. Kouris No. 131400411

          Rebecca Hyde Skordas and Kaytlin Virginia Beckett, Attorneys for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Kris C. Leonard, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Kate A. Toomey authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Michele M. Christiansen concurred.


          TOOMEY, Judge.

         ¶1 Adel Adnan Abdul Aziz appeals from his convictions of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury, a second degree felony, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-103(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017), and intoxication, a class C misdemeanor, see id. § 76-9-701(1), (7) (2012). Aziz contends he did not receive a fair trial because of alleged errors in the interpretation of an Arabic-speaking witness's trial testimony. Aziz also contends the district court erred in excluding a portion of his medical expert's testimony. We affirm.


         ¶2 In March 2013, Aziz went to a bar with his friend (Friend). After they began pushing one another, the two men caught the attention of several bar security personnel. Two of these security guards approached the men to speak to them about their scuffle. Aziz responded aggressively: first by making a gun gesture with his hand and placing it against his head and pulling the trigger, and then by pushing one of the security guards (M.C.). The second security guard (Victim) stepped in and attempted to escort Aziz away from the dance floor. But Aziz pulled Victim toward him, and the two began to struggle. As Aziz and Victim struggled, M.C. grabbed Friend and began pulling him toward the exit.

         ¶3 After Aziz and Victim struggled for a few seconds, Aziz latched onto Victim's cheek with his teeth. When Aziz would not release the bite, Victim became concerned that Aziz "was going to rip off a piece of [his] face." Following the intervention of another security guard (T.S.), Aziz finally released his bite. But the damage was already done. Aziz had bitten off a quarter-sized piece of flesh from Victim's cheek.[1] Victim and T.S. then escorted Aziz outside and held him there until the police arrived.

         ¶4 When the police arrived, Aziz told a different story. According to Aziz, Victim "came up from behind him" and wrapped his arm around Aziz's neck, so he bit Victim. Although Victim did not deny that he put Aziz in a chokehold, he testified that it did not happen until after Aziz had bitten him. Aziz was later found to have a blood alcohol level of .212.

         ¶5 Friend testified at Aziz's preliminary hearing. Friend told the court that he had brought a friend with him to serve as an interpreter. But because Friend's interpreter was not certified and because Friend appeared to have a good grasp of the English language, the court decided to proceed without the aid of a court interpreter for Friend, unless it became clear that Friend needed one. Except for one question that required clarification, Friend did not have trouble testifying in English. Friend testified that, as Aziz was being escorted outside, he saw two security guards grabbing, pushing, and punching Aziz. Friend did not testify that he saw either the chokehold or the bite and said he did not see Aziz's face near Victim's face.

         ¶6 At trial, Aziz was assigned a court-appointed Arabic interpreter. Aziz did not testify, but Friend did. Although Friend had little difficulty testifying in English at the preliminary hearing, defense counsel said Friend needed an interpreter during his trial testimony and suggested that Aziz's interpreter provide interpretation. The court was somewhat hesitant about the arrangement, but neither party objected to it.[2] The State did, however, ask Aziz to raise his hand if he had any difficulty hearing the interpretation.

         ¶7 Friend's trial testimony, through the interpreter, was consistent with his preliminary hearing testimony. On direct examination, Friend testified that security personnel "grabbed" and "captured" Aziz. Defense counsel asked Friend to elaborate on how the security team captured Aziz. Friend explained, through the interpreter, "They took him, . . . they grabbed him by hands and . . . they control[led] him and they took him outside." Friend then testified that he followed them outside and that one of the security guards "captured" and "grabbed" him as well. Defense counsel asked Friend, "Did you ever see [Aziz] bite anyone?" Friend's answer, through the interpreter, was unresponsive.[3] Nevertheless, defense counsel did not repeat the question, and the State did not ask about it on cross-examination.

         ¶8 Aziz's defense rested on the theory that Victim choked Aziz before the bite occurred and that the bite was either in self-defense or that the chokehold put him in a seizure-like state, causing him to bite Victim involuntarily. Friend's testimony was used to demonstrate self-defense. And Aziz called a medical expert (Expert) to testify that the bite could have been involuntary and that the nature of the wound suggested it was defensive. The court allowed Expert to testify about how the bite could have occurred involuntarily, but because Expert was not a forensic dentist, it did not allow him to testify that the nature of Victim's wound suggested a defensive bite.

         ¶9 After closing arguments, the jury returned guilty verdicts on both charges. One month later, before sentencing, Aziz filed a motion to arrest judgment or, in the alternative, for a new trial on the ground that critical portions of the interpretation of Friend's trial testimony were defective and that an accurate translation would have "given rise to reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury as to the element of intent." To support his claim, Aziz attached a purported corrected interpretation performed by an individual referred to in this opinion as J.A. J.A. did not identify himself as an interpreter-certified or not- or as being fluent in Arabic; he merely stated that he "listened to the [testimony] and translated it to the best of [his] knowledge."[4]

         ¶10 Although J.A. took issue with several portions of the interpretation of Friend's testimony, only two portions are material. First, when defense counsel asked Friend what he meant by "captured, " the court-appointed interpreter interpreted Friend's response as saying, "They grabbed [Aziz] by their hands, like they-like a hug or they grabbed him by hand." According to J.A., Friend actually used an Arabic word meaning "strangled."

         ¶11 Second, when defense counsel asked Friend to describe how Aziz was captured, according to the ...

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