When Amber Farrelly Elliott (pictured) was 9, her mother enrolled her in an American Sign Language class in hopes of keeping the inquisitive youngster occupied during summer vacation.
The language immediately fascinated Elliott, whose hearing is not impaired. Every day she eagerly rode her bike to the class in a church in her hometown of Lawton, Okla., a military town near Fort Sill. Elliott studied signs at night to keep up with her adult classmates.
That summer began an affinity for sign language and deaf culture that Elliott calls upon today as a criminal defense lawyer in Travis County. Licensed to practice law for just over a year, she fills a niche at the Travis County Courthouse with her ability to directly communicate with deaf clients instead of indirectly through an interpreter.
"It's a beautiful language," Elliott said. "It's just so expressive. And captivating. When you see somebody sign you can't help as a hearing person to look and be like, 'Wow, they are communicating with their hands and they completely understand each other.' "
Court officials say they assign Elliott to represent all the deaf people in Travis County who have been arrested for Class A and B misdemeanors and can't afford to hire their own lawyer. That amounts to about two or three defendants a month, said court administrator Debra Hale. Certified interpreters still translate for those clients during most official court hearings. Because of her limited experience, the local judges have not yet approved Elliott, 34, to represent court-appointed clients in felony cases.
County Court-at-Law Judge Nancy Hohengarten said that Elliott's ability to communicate with clients in their language further ensures that the defendants will receive fair representation.
"I think she's a very good lawyer," Hohengarten said. "She has good communication skills and perhaps that's in part because of her (sign language) training."
County officials estimate there are 50,000 to 60,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in the Austin metropolitan area. That's one of the largest populations in the country, according to deaf advocates and county officials, who believe it is partly because of the presence of the Texas School for the Deaf and government agencies that offer services to deaf people.
Paul Rutowski, president of the Texas Association of the Deaf, an advocacy organization, said in an e-mail that some deaf people have been skeptical of Elliott, worrying that she is using her sign language skills to "patronize the deaf community."
Rutowski does not believe that is the case.
"I value Amber's contributions to her profession as we all benefit from her expertise," he wrote. "Her knowing sign language is really a benefit to us and everyone else. She has a good personality and is a good person."
Elliott is 5 feet tall with a high-pitched voice. But that can be misleading, said Alexandra Gauthier, the president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, who has worked closely with Elliott.
"She's a little pit bull" in court, Gauthier said. "She's also whip-smart and extremely well-organized."
Elliott estimated she has represented about 65 deaf clients, most of them in Travis County and a few in Williamson County, mostly on misdemeanors, such as driving while intoxicated and theft.
She said that because the deaf community is so small, she has to take extra steps to protect their privacy, such as not scheduling deaf clients to come to her office or to court at the same time.
"I tell my clients, if they see me at a deaf event, I won't acknowledge that I know them unless they come up to me first," she said. She refuses to talk about their cases in public, in part because other deaf people can see what they are saying.
In many of the cases, she said, prosecutors have dismissed charges after Elliott convinced them that there was no crime and simply a misunderstanding between hearing and deaf people. Some deaf clients, for example, were charged with assault after tapping someone to get that person's attention, she said.
"If they really want you to pay attention to them, they tap harder," she said. "If you want to get technical, I've been assaulted by my (deaf) friends many times."
In one case, she had a homeless deaf man as a client, who received a written criminal trespass warning by University of Texas police. Later, when the man was found on campus again, he was arrested for trespassing, Elliott said.
Elliott said the man, whose reading skills were poor, did not understand the warning on the ticket and because he did not get the benefit of a verbal explanation he did not know he was not to return to campus.
"His reading level was not college level, which is required to read one of those stupid warnings," she said.
When she explained this to prosecutors, they dismissed the case, she said.
Confluence of signs
Elliott has continued to augment her knowledge of deaf culture after her first sign language class as a child.
A self-described "complete nerd," Elliott said that first class motivated her to work odd jobs to earn the money to take a more advanced class. She memorized a book on sign language that her uncle had bought her for 25 cents at a garage sale and befriended children who were deaf.
Elliott stopped practicing sign language while attending the University of Oklahoma but began again with deaf colleagues while working a post-graduation job at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Waco, where she evaluated veterans' levels of disability.
"It's like riding a bike," she said. "It came right back."
After enrolling in law school at the University of Arizona in 2006, Elliott found a group of people, about half of them deaf, who would meet regularly to communicate using sign language. Soon she was attending happy hours for young, professional deaf people.
"It was a great stress reliever," she said.
During law school, Elliott studied for a year at the University of Texas and spent the fall semester of 2008 working with a group of defense lawyers who were preparing for the retrials of capital murder defendants Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who were accused of killing four teenage girls at a North Austin yogurt shop in 1991.
She spent hours sifting through the more than 30 boxes of evidence in the case, watching recorded interviews and conducting legal research. At night, she took sign language classes at Austin Community College. Citing new DNA evidence, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg dismissed the charges against Scott and Springsteen last year, about the time Elliott passed the bar exam.
The case, she said, solidified her interest in practicing criminal law. After she became certified to practice, she introduced herself to the criminal judges at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center and told them about her sign language skills.
Now, she said, "I can put my two passions together — sign language and the law."
Monday, January 3, 2011
Posted by BA Haller at 5:55 PM