Judicial Language Project
Curry v. Carlton, 2011 WL 4600621 (October 6, 2011)
(Case summary by Caroline Morin, law student)
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- Nature of the Case: Rape; petitioner was convicted of three counts of aggravated rape and was sentenced as a violent offender.
- Facts: On August 15, 2000, the petitioner was convicted by a Knox County Criminal Court jury of three counts of aggravated rape and was sentenced as a violent offender to twenty-two years on each count, to be served consecutively to each other. On March 29, 2004, the petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus.
- Problematic Language: The problematic language in this case includes irrelevant information that the petitioner physically forced the victim, “his ex-girlfriend, from a nightclub” and that, “after taking her to an Economy Inn, he raped her.”
- Explanation of Problem: The following explanation is not intended as a substantive critique of the outcome reached by the Court.
Because the prior relationship of the individuals involved has no bearing on the issues before the appellate court, the Court's reference to the prior relationship between the defendant and the victim suggests that a prior relationship somehow facilitated or was related in a causal sense to the victim's injuries. A prior relationship between the defendant and the victim could be relevant in other circumstances, but had no bearing on the circumstances here. Thus, including the information undermines the seriousness of the crime by creating relevancy where it does not logically exist, in a manner that may diminish the reader's understanding of the crime as harmful irrespective of the prior relationship.
The Court's inclusion of evidence that the victim had been drinking is similarly problematic because this information lacks relevance, and is more harmful because by including information about the victim's drinking, the Court implies that the victim is somehow at fault for the crime committed against her.
Studies show that Including irrelevant information about a victim results in lowered assailant blame attribution, whereas including such information about an assailant increases perceptions of assailant blame. Researchers explain that including such information about a victim increases its salience, which can then result in an increased perception of her responsibility.
1: Linda Coates, Telling it like it isn't: obscuring perpetrator responsibility for violent crime, 15 (5) Discourse & Society 499, 502 (2004), www.sagepublications.com.
2: Bernieri, F. J. & Rempala, D. M. (2005). The consideration of rape: the effect of target information disparity on judgments of guilt. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 35(3). 536-550.
- Suggested Alternatives: Instead of mentioning that the victim was the petitioner’s ex-girlfriend, and including information about the victim's drinking, the court should have said nothing about either fact. Even if such information is part of the trial court record, Appellate courts are uniquely situated to tailor the facts to include only those that relate directly to issues on appeal. Where such information may be marginally relevant at trial to give the jury a context within which to assess the facts in light of surrounding circumstances, an appellate court should be more mindful to avoid including irrelevant, especially potentially prejudicial information that may perpetuate victim-blaming behavior and unfair stereotypes.