Henry Paul Koh
I recently was asked to do an interview with a Korean television station about the Jerry Hobbs case. During the course of the interview, the interviewer spoke with me about another case she was investigating -- the case of Henry Koh, a man from Northbrook (only a stone's throw from my home) who has been charged with the brutal stabbing murder of his son. According to the interviewer, the only evidence that the police have in the case is a so-called confession. Below is a story about the case which raises serious questions about the investigation conducted by Northbrook police and serious concerns about the reliability of Koh's confession.
I am not going to opine about the reliability of the confession here. I know far too little about the investigation and have not viewed the entire interrogation or transcript. But I am very concerned about the police procedure during the interrogation, most notably, the use of a Korean police officer as an interpreter during the interrogation. This is standard practice in Illinois and common practice in other jurisdictions but it has got to change. The reason is simple and to understand why I ask you to think about the role of the interpreter in a courtroom.
The normative or idealized view of the court interpreter is that of a conduit of information, an automaton who simply translates from one language to another word by word. It is somewhat unrealistic to expect interpreters to be able to act this way in real time but nonetheless, the point here is that they are supposed to be as unbiased as possible. Their loyalty is to the court and their mission is to be as accurate as possible. Contrast this with the untrained police interpreter. While he has no formal training as an interpreter, he does have training as an interrogator. He or she also has divided loyalties -- to the suspect who depends entirely on the interpreter and to the police, who are clearly trying to get the suspect to confess. In studies of cases involving police interpreters, Professor Susan Berk-Seligson of Vanderbilt University, a forensic linguist, has demonstrated that the police interpreters constantly shift back and forth between the "conduit" role and the role as "co-constructor" of the police narrative. Suspects also come to depend on interpreters and see them as their advocates, their "saviors" and police officer/interpreters can easily take advantage of this great power imbalance. If a police officer interpreter tells a suspect that it is in his best interests to confess to a crime, for example, it may carry even more weight with the suspect than if an interrogator uses this tactic. The use of police officers as interpreters can thus add to the coercive atmosphere of the interrogation and more importantly, can compromise the reliability of the resulting confession.
Whether this actually occurred in the Koh interrogation remains to be seen but the court should closely scrutinize the role of the interpreter when evaluating the voluntariness and the reliability of the confession. And Illinois should follow the course of more enlightened states like Minnesota who require interpreter certification and training and use interpreters who are no affiliated with the police departments during interrogations.