On Friday, I explained how we sometimes are presented with new ways of viewing the same old things we’ve seen 100 times before. That opportunity came when I attended a conference online regarding virtual worlds. Trippy, but grounded.
That same afternoon, I attended a seminar (in person) presented by a California lawyer. The talk was titled “Capitally Speaking: Language Shapes the Proceeding From Start to Finish.”
(The presentation was part of the Colloquium Speakers Series of ASU Applied Linguistics, a partnership between the College of Education and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.)
Mel Greenlee, an attorney with the California Appellate Project, walked the audience through a capital trial—from jury selection to the sentencing phase. And she explained how the language and diction used at every phase conveys a message to jurors. That diction is sometimes accidental—as in mis-translations—or planned—as in cross-examinations and closing arguments.
That overly simplistic summary would not be news to anyone who’s ever stepped in a courtroom. For as we all know, words are ideally selected to convey a message.
What was new was Greenlee’s detailed use of court transcripts to illustrate the messages. She examined 20 years’ worth of trials and appeals. As she said with a laugh, from her point of view, the most important person in the courtroom is the stenographer.
For example, she began with startling instances of translations gone awry, in which virtually all meaning was stripped out of the speaker’s words. The jury in those cases was poorly served, as was the justice system.
She even showed a clip from Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray’s character receives mediated direction, from Japanese to English, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. (After watching Murray’s character struggle with the liquor commercial, we got to read an accurate translation of the scene. To watch the hilarious scene, with subtitles, click here.)
Even more striking were the side-by-side comparisons of prosecution closing arguments given to largely white juries and those given to largely black juries. The goal—conviction and/or execution—was identical in each case. But the diction and strategy varied in each.
Greenlee also provided instances of judges and lawyers agreeing that non-mainstream hair styles, or a juror’s stern look, or an accent, were all indicative of a juror who was unwilling to apply the law. The result, in all those cases, was a jury that was pretty homogenous.
She argued, of course, that that is not society’s goal. Some photos from the event follow: