Defense: Burmese refugee's statements were coerced
When Win Zaw Aungo heard on the news that the body of a missing child was found in a South Salt Lake apartment complex, he wanted to visit the parents of slain 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo.
But when he arrived at the apartment complex around 11:30 p.m. on April 1, the area was blocked off by police investigating the area.
Aungo testified on Wednesday in 3rd District Court that he told a police officer at the scene that he knew the young girl's parents and wanted to know how he could help. He said the officer told him to go to the South Salt Lake police station.
When he arrived there, Aungo who speaks both Burmese and English was asked by police if he could interpret some interviews, he testified, including an interview with Esar Met, who eventually would be charged with murder in the girl's death.
"I went there not as an interpreter at the time," he testified. "I was just there because the police told me to go there."
South Salt Lake Detective Joseph Sutra testified on Wednesday that he was told that Aungo was hired by the FBI to be a translator, so he was brought into the room with their prime suspect and asked to interpret the interview. He said he only learned a few months ago that Aungo was not a hired interpreter and that "many things" were lost in translation.
Defense attorneys have claimed that Aungo told Met that if he didn't tell police what he wanted to hear, he would be put to death.
But Aungo testified Wednesday that he didn't say anything about being killed or tortured, and that police did not ask him to relay that to Met.
"What I told him was, the truth should be told," the man testified through an interpreter. "If you don't speak the truth, it will take a long time."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have previously stipulated that the police interview with Met would not be used at trial because of issues with the interpretation and a misunderstanding of his Miranda rights. However, if Met decides to testify at his trial, prosecutors want to use the interview as a way to impeach him on the stand.
At a hearing last week, defense attorney Michael Peterson said Met was coerced into making statements to police by the rogue interpreter.
"He was under pressure; he felt the need to make a statement about what happened to the girl or he would face the immediate penalty of death," Peterson said. "The question becomes, what obligation do law enforcement have to make sure things are being interpreted effectively? Do they just get to grab a random Burmese refugee off the street? And if what's interpreted is inaccurate or coercive, do they just get to say, 'Oh well, we didn't know?' "
Whether Met's statements to police can be used to impeach him on the stand is one of several issues Senior Judge Judith Atherton must resolve before Met's three-week trial begins Jan. 6.
Met, 26, is charged with first-degree felony counts of aggravated murder and child kidnapping in connection with the March 2008 slaying of 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo at the South Salt Lake apartment complex where they both lived.
Earlier this month, defense attorneys asked the judge to suppress evidence in the case they said was collected using illegal or unethical methods and petitioned the court to have prosecutors use diagrams instead of certain graphic photos that, the defense argued, are "too gruesome" for jurors.
Prosecutors called the photos relevant, saying they show the brutality with which the child was killed and the injuries she suffered.
"The person who did this, who dragged her into the shower and left her, intended her to die," prosecutor Robert Parrish said. "They are not gruesome photographs in and of themselves."
Atherton issued a ruling last Friday, writing that only two photos one depicting the 7-year-old girl crumpled inside a bathroom stall; the other, a photo of the girl's bruised and damaged genitals could be used at trial.
Defense attorneys also argued Wednesday that if Met were convicted, a jury should decide his fate, not Atherton as is typical in a capital murder case. Atherton took this issue, along with the issue about Met's police interview, under advisement Wednesday.
Met was ordered to stand trial last December, following a six-day preliminary hearing that included testimony from the girl's parents, Met's roommates, police, FBI agents and medical experts.
He has pleaded not guilty to beating, raping and strangling Hser Ner Moo.
Among the evidence prosecutors presented in December was the denim jacket Met was wearing when he was arrested at a relative's home. The jacket had multiple stains on it, and at least one stain was the child's blood, an expert testified.
Hser Ner Moo disappeared on March 31, 2008, prompting hundreds of volunteers to search for her before police found her body in Met's apartment the next night. Her family lived in the same complex, and the girl was acquainted with Met.
She was found face down in Met's shower, still in the pink shirt, pink skirt and pink coat she was wearing the day before. Police have said the girl was likely dead within an hour of leaving her family's nearby apartment.
Prosecutors ultimately decided to forgo seeking the death penalty against Met to move the case along.
Instead, Met could face life without the possibility of parole or 20 years to life in prison, if found guilty of aggravated murder.