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How local vernacular could play a role in Virginia court cases

| Feb 8, 2019 | Criminal Defense

As the systemic biases in the criminal justice system have come under increased scrutiny, questions have arisen regarding the importance of dialect. A recent linguistics study found that 27 stenographers made errors in two out of every five sentences when presented with Black English grammatical patterns. Moreover, the stenographers were only able to paraphrase one in three sentences.

While the entire scope of the problems defendants face as a result of Black English language misinterpretations has not been studied enough to be known, there are several glaring examples of resulting injustice. In 2007, a circuit court of appeals falsely determined that a black woman who testified that another person had intended to shoot her had instead claimed that the person had already shot her. In another case, the court allowed inadmissible evidence based on police testimony that, based on an incorrect interpretation of Black English, a defendant had not requested an attorney when, in fact, he had.

The lack of criminal justice employees who do not understand Black English is even more astounding in light of the fact that African Americans are tremendously overrepresented in the criminal court system and in jails and prisons. Unfortunately, past attempts at seeking personnel who understand Black English have been met with sharp criticism as the vernacular is often erroneously reduced to a collection of slang or lazy mispronunciations.

Defendants who require legal representation should seek out an attorney who understands and can articulate relevant cultural nuances. As part of the duty to provide legal counsel and representation, the attorney is charged with helping the client understand what is taking place at each stage of the investigative and criminal court process.