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Judge declares Guatemalan man ‘incompetent’ to stand homicide trial in U.S.

Video recorded with Sergeant Michael Kunovich's camera captures the moment Virgilio Aguilar Mendez was questioned by police. Photo: Screenshot/La Hora
Video recorded with Sergeant Michael Kunovich’s camera captures the moment Virgilio Aguilar Mendez was questioned by police. Photo: Screenshot/La Hora

A Florida judge has declared Guatemalan immigrant Virgilio Aguilar Mendez “incompetent to stand trial” on charges of manslaughter in the death of St. Johns police officer Michael Kunovich . The compatriot has been in prison since May last year.

The judicial decision was made on December 29, seven days after Judge R. Lee Smith heard Aguilar Méndez in a hearing. The ruling does not mean he will go free because a judge has not yet determined whether he is entitled to bail.

Video recorded with Sergeant Michael Kunovich's camera captures the moment Virgilio Aguilar Mendez was questioned by police. Photo: Screenshot/La Hora
Video recorded with Sergeant Michael Kunovich’s camera captures the moment Virgilio Aguilar Mendez was questioned by police. Photo: Screenshot/La Hora

The declaration of “incompetence” means the 18-year-old Guatemalan must receive medical treatment while in custody. It may be determined within six months whether it has sufficient capacity to cope with this process.

Defense attorneys were quoted in local media as expressing concerns including that he was unable to assist in preparing his defense, that he did not appear to understand the nature of the charges against him, and that he did not appear to understand the role of his public defender and was not handling the case. legal system.

Mayan origins

Aguilar Méndez is from Colotenago, in the province of Huehuetenango, and his native language is “Mam,” which may partly explain his ability to understand limitations because, according to media reports, his understanding of Spanish was incomplete.

During the Dec. 22 hearing, News4Jax cited clips in which Aguilar Méndez answered “yes” to all questions, provided inconsistent answers, and appeared to be withholding information. There were problems, despite the fact that he had help with a Spanish translator.

Others say that he originally came from a remote area of ​​Guatemala that was hit hard by the internal armed conflict, which may have influenced the development of his behavior.

accusation

Aguilar Méndez faces manslaughter charges after a fight with Florida police officers on May 19 that resulted in the death of Officer Michael Kunovich.

That day, the Guatemalan immigrant walked to the street in front of his hotel in St. Augustine, St. Johns County, to talk on the phone with his family in Guatemala. Then a patrol car carrying several police officers approached him, and security forces believed he was involved in trespassing on private property.

The young Guatemalan, who still holds irregular immigration status, tried to explain to officials that he was staying in a hotel, but they did not understand what he was saying because he did not speak English.

The entire incident was captured on one of the agents’ body cameras. Images collected show that officers did not understand the young man and tried to subdue and detain him, resulting in a struggle and Kunovich eventually collapsing. Paramedics took him to hospital, but he died.

He was initially charged with murder, but in July the charge was reduced to aggravated manslaughter. A medical report determined Kunovich died of natural causes, a cardiac arrhythmia.

Defense attorneys asked that he be released on bail, which could happen in the coming weeks.

fear

Gordon Duke, director of the Massachusetts-based K’iche Maya Organization, said he was concerned that Aguilar Méndez would die in the future while undergoing treatment. Medication was given with his consent to enable him to respond as required by the prosecution.

In the process, the prosecutor’s office tried to translate complex terminology that does not exist in Mam’s language, he added. In this sense, he insisted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minex) and the human rights monitor take action.

Minex took “precautionary steps to show that Aguilar Mendez did not have the understanding to authorize treatment” upon request, stressing that Guatemalan immigrants need a court-authorized and certified Mam interpreter to face a fair process.

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