Judicial Language Project
People v. Hedeen, 477 Mich. 898 (October 27, 2006)
(Case summary by Jessica Babine, law student )
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- Nature of the Case: This case involved a 32 year old whom assaulted a 15 year old child.
- Facts: The defendant in this case was 32 years old when he forced sexual penetration on the 15-year-old victim. They met two months before this happened. The victim told the police that the defendant knew that she was 15 and that defendant told her he would take care of her. The facts state that her home life was unstable. The victim began living with the defendant in his home.
She was impregnated by defendant first in September 2002 and then again in February 2003. Both times the victim aborted the pregnancies.
- Problematic Language: "engaging in sexual relations," and "engage in unprotected sexual activities with her"
- Explanation of Problem: The court said that the defendant "engaged" in sexual activities with the child. The use of the verb "engaging" conveys a sense of participation from both parties, rather than a nonconsensual act of violence against a child. Merriam-Webster (2004 on-line ed.) defines "engage" as "to induce to participate or take part." To imply that the child was an active participant in the assault, rather than an unwilling recipient of the violent acts of another, assigns responsibility to the child and distances the defendant from the act. This obscures the defendant's culpability by assigning some degree of responsibility to the victim. (Bohner, G. "Writing About Rape," British Journal of Social Psychology, (40), pp. 515-529, (2001)). It also perpetuates the dangerous stereotype that child victims are responsible for the acts of violence committed against them.
The degree to which the offender can be held responsible for his actions depends in part on the extent to which his actions are understood and comprehended by the reader. Language like the language used here should be avoided because it can mask both the seriousness of the harm and the deliberate nature of the perpetrator's actions. (Coates, L. "Telling it like it isn't: obscuring perpetrator responsibility for violent crime." Discourse and Society, (502), pp. 499-526 (2004).) A court's language should avoid creating an impression that a sexual assault on a child is about "sex;" instead, it should emphasize that it is an assault which had sexualized features. "Is it Sex or Assault: Erotic Versus Violent Language in Sexual Assault Trial Judgment," Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, (10), pp. 29-40 (Nov. 2001).
- Suggested Alternatives: Instead of using the term "engages in sexual relations" the court should use more appropriate language such as "forced sexual penetration." This phrase focuses on what the actor did to the victim, eliminating victim responsibility and assigning direct responsibility for the act to the defendant.