ELLICOTT CITY–The judge in the Maryland School for the Deaf sexual abuse case implemented an uncommon rule in the courtroom Tuesday.
After the jury was finalized and prior to opening statements, Judge William V. Tucker of the Circuit Court for Howard County, forbade any sign language communication by people in the courtroom, either between spectators or between spectators and trial participants. The only exception was for the four official courtroom interpreters and those communicating to the interpreters.
Directed specifically at members of the audience, he also said “facial gestures to any witnesses or participants” were forbidden during the trial, threatening to remove anyone who violated the temporary rule.
The rule was initiated due to the number of key players in the case — State of Maryland v. Clarence Cepheus Taylor III — who are deaf, including the defendant, victims and some witnesses.
“I’ve never been confronted with a situation like that,” said David Oppenheimer, a Berkley law professor who specializes in discrimination law.
“I’m not sure if there is an ADA violation (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) or a constitutional violation. It’s intriguing,” he said.
Taylor, 38, a former student life counselor and dormitory aid at the Columbia campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf, is accused of sexually abusing seven deaf female students between 2008 and 2011.
After the opening statements, there was speculation by the prosecutor that there had been discrete signing by members of the audience. Two court officials were then brought in to watch for any suspicious audience interactions.
The victims, who ranged between fourth and eighth grade during the time of the alleged abuse, accused Taylor, who is also deaf, of touching them inappropriately while they were overnight students at the school.
Three of the victims also accused him of attempting to solicit nude photographs of them via text message.
The investigation began in late 2012, after some of the victims told a student counselor of the abuse that took place a few years earlier.
Tucker said the trial is expected to last 10 days.