On the afternoon of Jan. 15, prosecutors say a Cupertino woman named Chisato Chiyoda took her 6-month-old son to Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay with the intent of killing herself and her child. She was stopped, thankfully, but what has transpired since has only deepened the tragedy and highlighted a growing problem in San Mateo County courts.
Chiyoda, 36, and a Japanese citizen, remains in the county jail, where she faces an attempted murder charge. Last week, her case was continued — for the fourth time — because court officials could not find the second certified Japanese interpreter necessary to proceed with so much as the preliminary hearing. Assuming the case is heard on the next scheduled court date in September, Chiyoda will have spent 254 days in the county lockup facing felony charges that are very likely to be reduced. She is eligible for release from custody pending trial, but no bail has been set.
Defense attorney Mitri Hanania said he is continuing to prepare his case and that the Court Interpreters Division in Redwood City has been diligent and helpful. He noted that his client is receiving mental health counseling while incarcerated.
Whether those jailhouse services are sufficient is an open question. Prosecutors say Chiyoda tried to kill herself multiple times before that terrible trip to the beach, and acknowledge that she needs treatment not jail time.
“This is not a woman who belongs in state prison,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said last week, adding that he thinks she is getting some mental health counseling now, but acknowledges that help is nothing like what she could get outside of jail. “Hold her accountable for what she did, yes, but get her the help she needs,” he said.
Chiyoda may be the only person languishing in our county jail for want of a Japanese interpreter, but seemingly endless delays — what Wagstaffe called “a culture of continuances” — plague the local courts, and sometimes those delays are caused by unusual requests for interpreters in San Mateo County.
Consider the no less tragic case of Paulino Najera. In May 2018, the Pescadero man was allegedly traveling north on Highway 1 when he veered into oncoming traffic and hit another car. He and the other driver suffered major injuries and Najera’s passenger was killed in the collision. Najera faces felony vehicular manslaughter charges, among others. His case has been continued until July 26, more than a year after the crash. Wagstaffe says Najera speaks a “Spanish dialect from the hills of Mexico” and that the court is flying in an interpreter in from Los Angeles. Because the interpreter doesn’t speak English, Wagstaffe says there will be another interpreter on hand to translate the first interpreter’s Spanish into English, a first in the county.
Finding qualified and willing interpreters is just one reason why so many local cases seem to drag on. There is also the problem of court reporters. San Mateo County courts are currently down seven of the 30 or so necessary for the efficient operation of the court. Wagstaffe said hiring more has proven daunting; only five people were certified as new court reporters in the entire state of California in 2018, he said.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim originally applied to the rights of those injured in a crime. But it also should apply to the accused, whom we promise a speedy trial. San Mateo County benefits from the diversity of its citizens in a hundred ways. It must provide for the needs that diversity necessitates. Let’s start by assembling the resources necessary to adjudicate the case of Chisato Chiyoda.