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SALT LAKE CITY — A preliminary hearing for a Burmese refugee accused in the slaying of a 7-year-old girl was again put on hold Monday because of a failure to adequately provide translation services to the defendant.
This is the fourth time such a hearing was set in the case of Esar Met, 25, since he was charged in the 2008 death of Hser Ner Moo. Evidence was prepared and witnesses and family members for both Met and Moo were present with the expectation of the start of the hearing.
"I'm really frustrated and upset with what's happening," Cartoon Wah, the young girl's father, said after the postponement. "Even if I ask to God, I can't get her back."
Tears streamed down his face as he talked about wanting to see a fair trial. That was apparently the judge's motivation in calling a halt before proceedings could get underway.
"I want to apologize to everyone who is here," 3rd District Judge William Barrett said after announcing that the hearing would again be continued. "(We need to) see if we can work something out so Mr. Met's constitutional rights aren't violated and this preliminary hearing is done in the right way."
Two interpreters had been flown out from California in advance of what was to be a weeklong preliminary hearing. But after giving an in-court test to the interpreters, defense attorneys voiced concerns.
They argued that the translations were inconsistent and not adequate.
"Mr. Met is entitled to a full and accurate translation of the hearing against him at all stages," attorney Denise Porter said. "Failure to provide that deprives him of his right to due process under both state and federal constitutions."
Met is facing charges of aggravated murder and child kidnapping, both first-degree felonies. Prosecutors have 60 days after Met is arraigned to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.
The girl apparently walked away from her South Salt Lake apartment on March 31, 2008. Her body was found the next day in the bathroom of Met's basement apartment. Authorities believe the child was raped, strangled and beaten to death the afternoon she disappeared.
A refugee from Myanmar, Met has struggled to understand the court proceedings and there have been difficulties finding interpreters for the man. Moo's family also requires interpreters, as they speak Karen.
"I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a case in Utah that involves this many different culture issues and languages," Prosecutor Rob Parrish said Monday.
The prosecutor said he is unsure how the case will proceed given the lack of interpreters, but said he, too, had concerns about the adequacy of the translation. He said his office will work with the courts and consider an international search to find a qualified interpreter.
Parrish said there have been multiple resolutions in the case that have fallen through and it has been "very frustrating" for prosecutors as well as the girl's family, who were prepared to testify Monday.
"It's been difficult," Parrish said. "Every time we've been close to resolving the case, every time we thought we were done, it's been really difficult for them. And I'm sure this is not going to be any easier today because they really wanted to get this done."
A scheduling conference has been set in the case for July 2.