Loaded words in the courtroom

Abstract

A few judges recently have banned words like "victim" from their courtroom, concerned that the defendant will be prejudiced. However, some commentators believe that such steps are counterproductive and have no basis in empirical literature. In addition, some states, like New Jersey, continue to use the word "victim" in their model jury instructions for crimes in which consent is a defense (e.g., sexual assault). In this paper, I examine the existing psychology literature regarding loaded words, finding that loaded words like “victim” can bias individual jurors in some criminal cases. If judges use the word in situations in which jurors may think the judge is referring to the person allegedly injured, the jurors may be more likely to find the defendant guilty, at least before deliberation with other jurors. In addition, I describe a web experiment that I conducted to determine whether jurors were more likely to find the defendant guilty when the complaining witness was described as a "victim" than a "complainant" in the judge's closing instructions. Participants in the experiment were shown a video of a simulated sexual assault trial, which concluded with a judge reading the New Jersey model instructions mentioning the word "victim" about ten times (participants in the control group saw a video in which the judge used the word "complainant").

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