She's the voice of people from all walks of life — from murder defendants to those fighting traffic violations — and in the past five years, court interpreter Ofelia Sandoval has seen it all.
The 36-year-old Atwater native sat next to a Planada woman on trial for murder, kidnapping and child endangerment for the past two months.
The high-profile case wasn't Sandoval's first murder trial — it was the fourth felony murder trial she's handled since taking the job.
Sandoval provided translation services to Spanish-speaking defendant Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, from her arraignment to the verdict. Robles and her ex-boyfriend were found guilty of killing a woman and stealing her infant.
For eight consecutive days, Sandoval relayed Ceja Robles' emotional testimony to jurors, while still translating every word spoken by the judge, attorneys and other witnesses.
"In the courtroom, they have to shift between the two languages all the time," said Court Executive Officer Linda Romero Soles. "Being an interpreter is a very important job in the courtroom, and their position requires them to have strong memory and communication skills."
It was a big undertaking for Sandoval, especially in a trial that had themes of bestiality, extreme abuse and a heinous murder.
But through it all, Sandoval remained calm and kept her "poker face" on — which isn't always easy. "You're on the stand and things come up and sometimes they're sad or funny," Sandoval said. "And you have to not show emotion on the stand. Sometimes that's difficult."
Before becoming a court interpreter, Sandoval worked as an elementary school librarian. The mother of two still participates in story time and other activities at local schools.
' ... We're all human'
Sandoval's background of working with children makes it especially difficult to provide interpretation for cases involving crimes against kids.
"Many times on the stand my eyes get teary because we're all human," Sandoval said. "It doesn't mean you don't hurt for the victim or their families. But in the courtroom, you have to be 100 percent unbiased."
Sandoval, who is an employee of the courts, does more than just provide Spanish-English translation. She also interprets pauses, nuances and inflections — sometimes at speeds of more than 180 words per minute.
"You just convey what they say, you're not there to clean anything up," Sandoval said.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said those inflections were especially prevalent during the Ceja Robles murder trial. "It's very challenging because they have to also be able to convey the emotion of what was said," Morse said. "Ms. Ceja's manners would rise and fall based on the question, and Ofelia had to absorb what was said and convey it to the jury in the most accurate way possible."
Morse said he experienced many exhausting days during the two-month homicide trial, but realized Sandoval's days were even more difficult.
"I can't even imagine how physically draining it must have been for her," Morse said. "Translators are unsung heroes in the criminal justice system."
Grateful to deputies
Sandoval said she considers the Sheriff's Department deputies to be heroes — especially during an incident in 2008 when they stopped a man who ran through security with a butcher knife. Deputies shot him as he tried to enter Presiding Judge Brian McCabe's courtroom.
"It was a miracle and it was because of the deputies' training and experience that no one got hurt," Sandoval said. "I want to publicly thank them for that."
Amid the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly, Sandoval has become a vital part of the Merced County Superior Court system.
"I think because she's a seasoned interpreter. She's always done a professional job for the court," Romero Soles said.
Morse agreed. "I can't imagine an interpreter having more of a challenge than this trial — all of the interpreters conducted themselves with just incredible professionalism," he said.
But after it's all said and done, Sandoval does her best to leave what she's heard in the courtroom. "You just get used to it after a while," she said. "I still have a heart. You just learn not to take it home with you."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar. com.