No Trial in Sight in '09 Murder Case; Progress Halted Because of Language Barrier

Accused in the death of a citrus harvester, Romeo Lemos speaks mixture of a Mayan tongue, some Spanish.

By Jason Geary

Published: Friday, February 10, 2012 at 12:15 a.m.

BARTOW | For three years, the murder case against Romeo Lemos has been at a standstill.

He can't go to trial. Lawyers can't even negotiate a plea deal for him.
The holdup isn't because of problems with testing evidence or finding a key witness. It's more complex: A language barrier.

Lemos was arrested Jan. 13, 2009, on charges that he sawed a co-worker's throat open with a machete as two accomplices held the man down.

The 35-year-old Guatemala native and illegal immigrant has virtually no formal education and is indigent.

He speaks a mixture of a Mayan language from his parents and pieces of Spanish gleaned throughout his life.

He doesn't understand Spanish well enough to communicate properly with his lawyers and can't comprehend how Florida's criminal justice system works, according to court records.

During a Thursday hearing, Lemos attempted to communicate to a judge through a Spanish interpreter.

"I think there has been enough time that this should end," he said. "Honestly, I have my children and my wife and that they are in my country alone. It hurts me."

Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen told Lemos through an interpreter that he understood his frustration and wanted to bring the murder case to some sort of end.

"I need to be comfortable that you understand what this process is and what we are doing," Jacobsen said.

But until mental health experts and court officials agree Lemos can grasp what is going on around him, the case against him will linger.


George "Bob" Dekle, a legal professor for the University of Florida, said Lemos' situation calls attention to a fundamental right of all people in the criminal justice system.

"How can you put somebody through a process, and they don't know what's going on?" asked Dekle.

"It's basic to any criminal justice system that the person who is being prosecuted have an understanding of what the charges are against him and what the process is whereby they're going to be held accountable for it."

Court officials have been grappling with how to educate Lemos so his first-degree murder case can move forward.

Lemos isn't mentally ill, so he doesn't meet the criteria to be sent to a state hospital for competency training, according to previous court testimony.

Instead, he has been receiving treatment at a local program.
Lemos is represented by the Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, an agency providing legal services to defendants without money to hire lawyers.

Lemos' lawyer, Stephen Fisher, said his client has received some training, but more is needed.

"His Spanish is improving as far as speaking Spanish words," he said.
Lemos doesn't appear to understand basic concepts of the legal system, Fisher said. What is a trial? What are the jobs of the judge, defense lawyers and prosecutors?

It is also unclear what state agency should be responsible for paying to educate Lemos.

Jacobsen scheduled a hearing next month to further discuss options in Lemos' case.

"I know this is very frustrating from your point of view," the judge told Lemos through the interpreter. "I can assure you that I want to get this matter moving."


Prosecutors aren't willing to let Lemos be deported without punishment.
"We feel that he should be held accountable here," said Brian Haas, a spokesman with the State Attorney's Office in Bartow. "There's also no guarantee that he wouldn't just come back."

Lemos is accused of taking part in a brutal attack that ended the life of a 31-year-old citrus harvester.

The Ledger has obtained reports detailing the investigation into the death of Julio Villatoro-Cancino.

The killing took place on the evening of Jan. 11, 2009, in a wooded area near a bunkhouse for migrant workers on Brooks Ridge Road in Frostproof.

Lemos spoke in Spanish to detectives, and a transcript was made. But whether Lemos understood exactly what he and detectives were saying could become a legal question.

Gil Colon Jr., a local criminal defense lawyer who is fluent in Spanish, has defended other Guatemalans who speak Mayan languages.
Colon, who does not represent Lemos, said there are many different regional variations, so interpreting can be difficult.

Just because a person speaks some Spanish doesn't mean that he or she completely understands it, Colon said.

A variety of cultural influences can also impact a person's comprehension, he said.

The same word can have different meanings to different nationalities, he said.

People raised in countries where the government has total control over their lives might not understand that they have a right to remain silent, he said.

In cases in which a recorded statement has been taken, it is important to compare the audio recording to the written transcript, he said.
"You could be missing something in the transcript that might be helpful to the client," he said.

Lemos recalled in the transcript that Villatoro-Cancino returned from a party, was intoxicated and belligerent and was threatening to kill himself.

Lemos said Villatoro-­Cancino punched him in the chest, and Jorge Mata attempted to defend Lemos.

Jorge Mata and his brother, Jose, carried Villatoro-­Cancino outside, he said.

He insisted that Jose Mata threatened to kill him if he didn't kill Villatoro-Cancino.

Lemos said he got a machete and "with pain in my heart" used a sawing-motion to cut Villatoro-Cancino's throat as the brothers held him down.
"I will never forget it," Lemos said in the transcript. "He was my friend. He was my friend. When he was fine, he would give me food."
Lemos said he ran back to the bunkhouse and was shaking with fear.
"To this date, I'm ugly," he said. "I'm ugly."

Lemos said the Mata brothers discarded Villatoro-­Cancino's body.
Two plastic bags with 148 pounds of dirt were tied to the man's belt, and he was dumped into a pond.

The morning after the slaying, Lemos reported to authorities that Villatoro-Cancino killed himself, reports state.

A dive team found the body in the pond.

The Mata brothers accepted plea deals in 2009. They pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Each received 12 years in prison and agreed to testify against Lemos.

But when Lemos will stand trial is anyone's guess.