Judicial Language Project
Parchman v. State (April 15, 2009)
(Case summary by Jenna Labourr, law student)
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- Nature of the Case: Child Sexual Abuse
- Problematic Language: “M.J.[…] slipped out of her father’s house to spend the night at Appellant[‘s] […] apartment”, “the group smoked marijuana”, “M.J. went to bed high from the marijuana”, “having sex with”, “she was so high on marijuana when it allegedly happened”
- Explanation of Problem: Several words and phrases convey an image of consensual sexual conduct. As this case involves sexual violence against a minor, who lacks legal capacity to consent, such terminology is improper and should be avoided because it minimizes harm, blames a child for the criminal acts of an adult and normalizes violent behavior
1. The phrase “having sex” wrongly implies consensual sexual activity and mutuality of moral and legal responsibility. See Coates, et al., 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. The court's mention that “M.J.[…] slipped out of her father’s house to spend the night at Appellant[‘s] […] apartment”; “the group smoked marijuana”, “M.J. went to bed high from the marijuana”; “she was so high on marijuana when it allegedly happened” are references to information that implies the victim bears some degree of responsibility for what happened. These phrases also distract attention from the defendant’s actions.
Furthermore, when discussing a second assault perpetrated by the appellant in this case, the court uses the second victim’s full name. As this victim was a minor as well, her initials should have been used in order to protect her identity just as initials were used in reference to the victim at issue in the current case.
- Suggested Alternatives: Instead of “having sex,” the court could have said the defendant “raped” the victim or “forcibly penetrated the victim's vagina.” And all information related to the victim's behavior before the crime should have been omitted as irrelevant to a fair resolution of the issues on appeal.