Judicial Language Project
People v. Romero (July 1, 2005)
(Case summary by Jenna Labourr, law student)
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- Nature of the Case: Child Sexual Abuse
- Problematic Language: “having intercourse”, “panties”, “she entered and closed the door at his request”, “he guided her”, “fondling”, “helped her get undressed”
- Explanation of Problem: The words and phrases in this opinion that are used to describe the defendant’s behavior toward his victim create a scene of a positive, consensual sexual encounter. As this case involves sexual violence against a minor victim, this narrative is improper:
1. “Fondling” and "intercourse" are defined as pleasant, affectionate and erotic activity. See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intercourse, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fondling. As such, this language is inappropriate to describe sexual violence against a child. Bavelas, Janet and Linda Coats Is it Sex or Assault? Erotic Versus Violent Language in Sexual Assault Trial Judgments. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2001.
2. “Panties” connotes a sexual image of the child's undergarments, and as such, minimizes harm. See Coates, Linda and Allan Wade. Telling it Like it Isn’t: Obscuring Perpetrator Responsibility for Violent Crime. Discourse & Society 2004.
3. Other language creates a scene of the victim actively participating in her own abuse. “She entered and closed the door at his request”, “he told her to get on the bed, which she did”, “he guided her”, “helped her get undressed" all
convey an image of the victim participating with the offender's kind assistance, rather than being the recipient of criminal conduct. Such phraseology allows the reader to see the victim as bearing responsibility for her participation, which diminishes the defendant’s exclusively legal culpability.
- Suggested Alternatives: Instead of “panties”, the court could say “undergarments” or “underwear”. Instead of “having intercourse”, the court could say “the defendant forcibly penetrated the child's genitals” and in general the court could have used terms and phrases that describe the defendant as the sole actor. For example, rather than he "helped her get undressed" and "he guided her", "he caused removal of her clothes" and "he compelled her" would more appropriately describe the perpetrator as solely responsible for his actions.