Did Juliana try to kill her baby? When the defendant can neither hear nor speak, how does a court determine blame?
MERCED, Calif. - Juliana Martinez Dionicio has no language.
She is deaf and mute. Her family speaks only Trique, an obscure pre-Columbian language that is foreign even to other Mexicans. She communicates with her family in gestures no one else understands.
Illiterate and silent, Juliana lives in isolation made even more profound by her circumstances - traveling with her sister and father in an anonymous stream of undocumented immigrant farmworkers who tend fields across the West.
On a cold day last November, the tiny 24-year-old climbed a rusty chain link fence into a neighbor's filthy dog pen in Livingston, Calif. Alone, she gave birth to a baby girl.
Then she stuffed several wads of paper tissue in the infant's mouth.
California authorities arrested her on a charge of felony child endangerment.
"I would look at her sitting there in court and wonder what was going through her mind," said prosecutor Larry Morse II. "We can only suppose as to know she understands."
Imagine living in a world without words. Then imagine getting pregnant, perhaps as a result of rape, giving birth alone, being arrested - and not having the words to explain, or to understand what is happening.
That is Juliana's story.
Juliana was born in extreme poverty in San Martin Itunyoso, a remote village in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her father worked the fields; her mother took care of the five children.
The family scraped by until they borrowed money to build a home. Unable to repay the debt, Pedro Martinez crossed the border illegally two years ago with Rosa and Juliana, his two oldest daughters.
Since then, Juliana has lived in crowded migrant camps, planting, weeding and harvesting in fields from southern California to Oregon.
It is a meager life. Pedro Martinez sent any savings back to the family in Oaxaca. There was no time or money for the young women's wants - new clothes, shoes - or for the most basic needs, like education and medical care, her father said through an interpreter.
Juliana had never been to a doctor, seen a social worker or attended school. A silent pair of hands in a field, she escaped notice until the chilly morning when she left the crowded house she shared with other migrant workers and scaled that fence.
Maria Silveira was watching TV when she heard her dog barking insistently. Frightened, the elderly woman rushed across the street to Livingston's tiny police department.
Officer Alan Cadiente and Lilly Trujillo, a volunteer Spanish-language translator, ran to Silveira's back yard. Inside the splintering old boards of its pen, the dog pulled against its leash, growling and barking.
There, they found Juliana squatting in fresh blood mixed with the leaves and dog excrement. She was cold and in shock. She would not look up, make eye contact or react to their presence.
"She didn't know who to trust," Cadiente said.
The baby, her black hair matted with blood, was propped like a doll against a tree trunk. Her lips were blue. She was cold to the touch. The umbilical cord was still attached.
Silveira brought out a towel - one of her new ones. Trujillo wrapped the baby, then noticed something white sticking out of her mouth. She pulled out a wad of tissue paper, then another. Paramedics rushing the child to the hospital found two more lodged in the baby's throat.