By Tiffany Yeh
Defendant Ephrem Rukundo is charged with sexual battery (misdemeanor), and oral copulation and sexual penetration of an unconscious person (felonies). Mr. Rukundo testified in the ongoing trial on May 31, 2016, with an interpreter present next to him.
Mr. Rukundo needed help from the interpreter with three words/phrases, including: “turning around” and “census.”
Mr. Rukundo explained that English is not his first language, but is his “third or fourth language.” He’s never testified in a courtroom before and has “never been in trouble with the law,” either in the U.S. or in Rwanda. He’s been waiting for a year to testify.
He comes from a village in the countryside of Rwanda, not from an educated background. His parents and extended family are not educated; he was the only one from his family to study at a high school. In 2010, he came to the U.S. with education on his mind.
Mr. Rukundo “always wanted to be as educated as I [he] can get.” Part of that dream was to study at a college. He had heard that UC Davis was a good school. A friend’s husband’s brother, “ER,” told him about Davis, while ER was in Rwanda for the Barefoot Artist nonprofit program.
Before April 26, 2015, Mr. Rukundo had never been in trouble. He only had one qualifying exam left for his Ph.D. program. After he passed that exam, then he would be on to writing and researching.
When asked by Americans where he came from, Rukundo would reply that he was from Rwanda, and inevitably, he would get asked about the film Hotel Rwanda, Hutus, and Tutsis. He explained that, after a few times of being asked that by different people, he just didn’t want to go there (to that topic of conversation during small talk.) He would try his best to divert the conversation to “avoid that question as much as possible.”
He explained meeting “LS” at Thai Canteen in Davis. He also mentioned Sophia’s Thai Kitchen (apparently a meeting there), and something that seemed he meant that nine days passed between those meetings.
Mr. Rukundo said that it was his “first time ever [to] hear such [a] thing,” about him forcing LS to have sex with him and he “didn’t even know she [LS] was coming home with me that night.”
“Yes, she wanted to have sex with me… After the bar, we made out outside the bar, walking” and Mr. Rukundo did not realize that he and LS were going to his place for the night.
They went to his room, made out, and LS asked him for a condom.
He told LS that he was from France and that his father works for the U.N.
Rukundo explained that he tried to avoid the question about where he was from and he “had to pick a job [for his father]” and what “popped up in my mind” was the U.N.
Mr. Rukundo grew up right after the genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis. It was a “common job” for people to work for the Red Cross, U.N., and other such organizations. No regular jobs, as in the U.S., existed in Rwanda around then, after the genocide. He stated that he “never told LS that he had a diplomatic passport.”
He did make a comment regarding a science fiction project. Then he talked about a diplomatic passport, referred to a movie, and talked about passing “through without anyone asking them about themselves.”
LS never described him as her boyfriend. Mr. Rukundo describes “waiting for any kind of conversation” about whether he and LS were in a friendship or in a romantic relationship. He stated that the conversation “never came up.”
Rukundo is the name given to him by his parents. His dad has two names and his mom has two names. In Rwanda, parents wait eight to nine days after the birth of a baby to name a child.
He described the closest thing in the U.S. to the Rwandan naming ceremony is a baby shower. Everyone would go to the event, partying and then having a ceremony. Everyone, including friends, kids and neighbors, would attend and eat food. All the kids would suggest names for the baby and then, the next morning, the parents would announce the name they chose for the baby.
Rukundo means “love” in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda. On Facebook, Mr. Rukundo’s name was perhaps spelled “Ruluv.” His friends at school gave him this nickname—a mashup of English and Kinyarwanda.
He expressed that he “never told LS his last name was Rukundo.”
He always introduced himself to people as Ephrem. As of April 26, 2015, he had around 300 Facebook friends, some of whom knew him as Rukundo, or perhaps Rakundo. Sometime, he took down his Facebook – he said he had a “lot of things to do” and needed to “get away from Facebook.”
The date on his passport is a date in March of 1980, a date he picked out himself at random. He needed it to apply for an ID. He did not have a birth certificate from Rwanda. In Rwanda, there is “no such thing” as a birth certificate, Mr. Rukundo said. He was told that he was born at home and that his mom was at home by herself when she gave birth to him.
He never celebrated his own birthday or his siblings’ birthdays (it seems that perhaps they do not celebrate birthdays in Rwanda).
When he applied for an ID, Rukundo needed to estimate how old he was. He estimated by looking at the ages of his classmates in the same class of school year. According to his passport, he was 36 in March. He said that he could be 34 or 35, but he is not sure. In Rwanda, age is not something that comes up in small talk. Only during a census does age come up. He estimated that he could “maybe be as young as 31.”
He told LS that he was 26, an age he chose to tell her. They had a conversation where age came up, about two or three days after he first met her. When he learned how old she was, he described being not comfortable, being surprised, as he had assumed that she was older, because she was at a bar.
When Rukundo was asked if he usually dated girls as young as LS, he said “no… no.”
On April 25, 2015, LS invited him to a party. He and LS communicated through text messages. Pictures of texts between the two were shown by the defense.
The party was to celebrate one of LS’ friends’ birthday, and the defendant had been to this house approximately three times before this date.
Mr. Rukundo expressed not wanting to go to the party. He ended up going anyway, and bought a bottle of champagne for the birthday person, along with a bottle of white wine to share with everyone.
He texted her when he arrived at the house at 11pm. She had helped him to get a tie, to fit the party’s dress code.
He described people outside the house/duplex drinking by the ping pong table, and he greeted the birthday girl. He then went into the kitchen, and poured himself a glass of white wine.
People were taking photos. One photo shown to the defendant was of two females and a male. He described the photo probably being around the middle of the party and said that he never met the woman on the far right of the picture. He stated that he was “not introduced to that girl.” He says he remembers seeing her, and that two people look exactly the same (he meant that she was a twin.)
The person on the right was a female who was on a couch, crying, who seemed to be intoxicated. He did not dance with either twin that night. He remembers LS going over to the crying woman on the couch. This was near the end of the party. LS consoled the woman, and others also helped to console the woman. They “pet on [her] shoulders and back of woman.”
He asked LS about the girl and LS told him that “the girl she [crying couch woman] was making out [with] left [the party],” but the crying woman on the couch still wanted to keep talking to her.
Mr. Rukundo said that it was “too bad for her” and that he “has seen [that] happen before,” to himself too. He went to the woman and patted her shoulders and “say comforting words.”
During the party, he also took a picture of four people on his phone (the same three people as in the other picture, plus another person, “P”). The time stamp of this picture was 1:32 (am) on April 26, 2015.
LS had been drinking during the party but did not appear to be intoxicated. “Toward the end, people moved from outside toward the inside.” He recalled going to LS’ bedroom at the end of the party, around 2 or 2:30am.
He went to her bedroom with her to “talk, make out, go on bed, had sex.” This all took a total of 45 minutes. They used a condom, and after they had sex, he asked her if she had a trash bin to put the used condom in.
They had been having sex in bed and he said that he “didn’t want to go outside [of LS’ bedroom] naked” to throw away the condom. He said that LS told him, “No, don’t worry about it, throw it [the used condom] on ground.”
He tied the used condom in a knot and put it on the floor. They talked a little bit, and then he went to the bathroom. At this point, he did not hear any crying.
Then they made out some more, talked, then Luna went to use the bathroom, and returned. He could heard the girl on the couch still crying. As LS returned from the bathroom, he commented to her, “Wow! She’s still crying.” LS told him something like, “Let her cry it out.” They talked some more, made plans for the next day, and then he had to leave.
Mr. Rukundo got dressed, left the room, and closed LS’ door behind him. LS did not leave the room. He turned right, toward the kitchen, because he wanted to get a glass of water to drink.
On the way to the kitchen, he realized that “part of the comforter [was] on floor,” next to the couch. He put the comforter on the couch, perhaps with a kick of his leg (the statement was unclear).
He said he assumed that the person still on the couch was the same person who was on the couch from earlier.
He kept going to the kitchen to get water. He stopped at the couch, bent over, and tried to put the blanket back on the couch because the floor was messy. As he put the blanket back on the couch, she (the female on the couch) “grabbed my hand.”
Mr. Rukundo said that he thought to himself, “Uh… What is going on?” Then, he said, “she started putting my hand over [her] chest area and body,” “both under and on top of breast area.”
The first pass around her chest was when her clothes were on. The second was on the stomach area and then going down to the “private area” and “she’s still holding [Mr. Rukundo’s] hand,” above her pajama shorts.
“I [Mr. Rukundo] was not sure what’s going on. I was concerned, nervous, about LS opening the door.”
This (situation) went on for “some minutes.” The woman turned around, back on the couch.
When his hand (held by the female) was under her shorts, between the shorts and under her underwear, he debated to himself about what was going on, and he “tried to pull [his] hand” away from hers.
She gave him a kiss on his neck. He could feel that she was “wet” – she wanted to have sex. She tried to undo his shirt.
He explained thinking “back and forth in his head,” until he thought he would “go with it.” LS did not say anything to him about being exclusive.
The couch girl and Mr. Rukundo had sex and “her legs were open, bend toward her.” “She was on couch, [he] was on top” of her.
The only time he looked toward her face was when she kissed him, and he saw her eyes open. He remembered that she took her underwear off to the knees, and then he helped her take off the underwear. She had to lift her waist to do so.
“She put her leg on couch, lift her hips.” Then, “she pulled his underwear waist down to knees.”
Her underwear was at the end of the couch. Mr. Rukundo did not ejaculate inside of her, as they did not use a condom. He stated that he “did not want to impregnate someone he did not know.”
He got off the couch, put on his pants and clothes and she was putting on her underwear while still lying down. He sat down next to the couch, on the floor.
At some point, his head had been between her legs. He ejaculated on the blanket or couch. He described that “it seemed like [she] wanted more.” She “pulled his head toward her legs” – he described that she seemed to want oral sex. “She was making sounds you make when having sex.”
During this, he did not hear her say “don’t do this” or “no.” He describes that he was “enjoying it.” “She tried to push his head down” but “he didn’t go there” and did not do oral sex. “He used his hand instead” to “help her reach orgasm.”
It appeared to him that she reached an orgasm. He “put on his pants, she put on underwear… [he] sat next to her.” “She still lying face up, look up a little bit.”
Then, she put her “right hand on [her forehead],” she was awake, and she said, “Oh f—!” out loud. Mr. Rukundo said he was confused. He thought she was going to talk. She said “Oh f—!” for a second time.
He asked her, “What do you mean, f—?” She then asked him, “What’s your name?” He was “still confused, puzzled.” He was still sitting there, and he thought in his head, this is a weird conversation.
He didn’t respond to her question. He thought, “Why is she saying that?” She asked for his name again, then raised her voice, telling him, “Get out of here!”
She did not mention anything about an assault. He thought that “this conversation is way weird,” and went toward the garage, which was on the opposite side of the couch. He was “still more concerned about LS,” “was going to text LS.” He wondered if they (LS and the girl on the couch) knew each other, “girls are going to talk.” He described that there was “no good way” to tell LS he had sex with another girl but thought it would be better if he told her himself.
He opened the garage door, was on the first stair, opened up his texting app, and the girl from the couch showed up, opened the garage door and said, “What the f—!”
He thought to himself that this was “too much” and that he would “figure [things] out in morning.” He went toward the outside door.
She tapped him, seeming to “want to make him turn back.” “She walked next to him,” beside him. He left the front door.
Mr. Rukundo “only thought about texting [LS], not want to go and wake her up.” He left the house and went to the car, sat in the car for some minutes, and thought to himself, should he “text LS right now? Which words? In morning?” He was not trying to hide.
He estimated that ten minutes passed before he and the girl on the couch had sex, the sex was about five minutes, and then he sat on the floor for about ten minutes. He estimated the entire interaction with the girl on the couch was about 25 to 30 minutes. He texted LS later in the day on April 26, saying that he didn’t go to TEDx at UC Davis.
She texted back, saying she had a “…crazy bad day,” didn’t go to TEDx either, and heard that he sexually assaulted one of her friends at the party.
He described being “shocked and confused,” “I didn’t sexually assault anyone.” His head was “boiling” and “wondering why accusing me of things,” he tried “to remember everything” that happened at the party. He wanted to call LS. He did call her, she didn’t pick up, he left a message on her phone, saying “please call me.” Then, later, he got a phone call from a number he did not know, and LS was on the phone and he could tell that the call was on speakerphone. He explained that a voice sounds different on speakerphone, versus not on speakerphone.
He wondered why she was on speakerphone, and she would pause after saying something, as if someone was “telling her what to say.” He asked her to “meet and talk about this” in person. LS told him to talk to her right now. He said that he preferred that they (he and LS) meet, but LS said no. Mr. Rukundo said that “she [LS] didn’t give me a chance to say my side of [the] story.”
Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays cross-examined Mr. Rukundo, questioning him mainly on whether he thought the girl on the couch was asleep or not, whether she said anything to him while the whole interaction occurred, and why he did not ask her what was going on during the interaction on the couch. Ms. Hays also asked him when he heard the girl on the couch crying, and whether the couch girl grabbed his left or right hand. He stated that he thinks it was his left hand “but can’t be certain.” Also, during the interaction, the girl on the couch was going to kiss his lips but he moved his head (on purpose, it seems), and she kissed his neck instead.
The prosecution planned to resume their cross-examination tomorrow, June 1.
The interpreter would not be present after today (May 31), as he is catching a flight to Tanzania because his father passed away during the past weekend. The court located a total of two certified interpreters of Kinyarwanda in the U.S., with the other interpreter back on the East Coast of the U.S., but currently out of the country for a couple of weeks. Judge David Rosenberg gave the defense two options: to continue the trial or he would declare a mistrial.
The defendant consulted with Deputy Public Defender Dean Johansson a couple of times. He expressed not wanting to continue the trial to a date a couple weeks in the future. He also seemed kind of hesitant to waive his right to an interpreter for the rest of the trial. On Tuesday, Ms. Hays expressed having about an hour left of recross-examination of the defendant.
The defendant expressed that he could go on without an interpreter if the attorneys avoided using big words or technical words. The prosecution agreed, and stated that they would strike the questions with big words or technical words that he could not answer, and rephrase those questions.
Mr. Johansson stated that he was “uncomfortable” with the waiving of an interpreter, but that it was ultimately the defendant’s decision. The judge then found that the defendant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his right to an interpreter.
One may imagine that the court could extend the session today for an hour, and have Ms. Hays finish the hour-long cross-examination (her estimation of how long it would take) with the interpreter present. Perhaps the consideration of the court’s budget could have restrained such an option from even being on the table. Perhaps that would mean that every defendant would have to have such a right, or an option, to have their trial go longer than the court’s hours for that day.
When even the prosecution asked the judge to explain the options possible (after it was announced that the interpreter would not be available, with no available replacement), there was some hesitation that things were not going normally. Granted, Ms. Hays expressed wanting the defense to give up appeal rights if the defendant waived the right to an interpreter and was convicted on any charge.
But it is not very common for a defendant to be left without an interpreter during a trial. Is leaving the defendant with the options of accepting a mistrial or a continuance (which means that a new jury would probably have to be found) constraining the rights of the defendant? Is it the problem of the court system or of the lack of Kinyarwandan interpreters in the U.S., or possibly both? This reporter walked out of the courtroom today a bit alarmed, sad and confused.