In a trial involving an alleged sexual assault, how would the prosecution present its case in a courtroom from which the judge had formally banned the words and phrases “rape,” “sexual assault,” “victim,” “assailant,” etc?
Usually we leave it up to the linguists and philosophers to muse on the crazy relationship between words and their meanings. In the law, wordsâ€”the important ones, at leastâ€”are defined narrowly, and judges, lawyers, and jurors are trusted to understand their meanings. It’s precisely because language is so powerful in a courtroom that we treat it so reverently.Yet a Nebraska district judge, Jeffre Cheuvront, suddenly finds himself in a war of words with attorneys on both sides of a sexual assault trial. More worrisome, he appears to be at war with language itself, and his paradoxical answer is to ban it: Last fall, Cheuvront granted a motion by defense attorneys barring the use of the words rape, sexual assault, victim, assailant, and sexual assault kit from the trial of Pamir Safiâ€”accused of raping Tory Bowen in October 2004.
Safi’s first trial resulted in a hung jury last November when jurors deadlocked 7-5. Responding to Cheuvront’s initial language banâ€”which will be in force again when Safi is retried in Julyâ€”prosecutors upped the ante last month by seeking to have words like sex and intercourse barred from the courtroom as well. The judge denied that motion, evidently on the theory that there would be no words left to describe the sex act at all. The result is that the defense and the prosecution are both left to use the same wordâ€”sexâ€”to describe either forcible sexual assault, or benign consensual intercourse. As for the jurors, they’ll just have to read the witnesses’ eyebrows to sort out the difference.