Loaded Words in the Courtroom

40 Pages Posted: 18 May 2009 Last revised: 13 Apr 2010

Date Written: May 12, 2009


Historically, loaded words like "victim" were common in courtrooms. Even today, states like New Jersey use the word "victim" to refer to the complainant for crimes in which consent is a defense (e.g., sexual assault).

Concerned that defendants will be prejudiced, judges recently have banned such loaded words from their courtroom. Others, however, argue that such steps are counterproductive and have no empirical justification.

In this paper, I examine the existing psychology literature regarding loaded words. I conclude that loaded words like "victim" can bias individual jurors in some criminal cases. If judges use the word "victim" 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.

To test this conclusion, I conducted a web experiment 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").

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, law, psychology, experiment, sexual assault, rape, jury, judge, bias

Suggested Citation

Terranova, Christopher, Loaded Words in the Courtroom (May 12, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1403627 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1403627

Christopher Terranova (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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