In Texas and across the United States, ensuring that defendants are fully understood when they tell their side of the story is a tenet of criminal defense law. Unfortunately, this does not always happen in cases when individuals facing criminal charges communicate in slang or a difficult to understand vernacular. It has become especially problematic for many black defendants.
Language researchers in Philadelphia looking into mistakes made by court stenographers who misunderstand African Americans have found error rates as high as 40 percent in their transcripts. In a criminal trial, a single transcription error can turn into a terrible misunderstanding that could impact the outcome of the case. When negotiating a plea, for example, there is no room for error because defendants can face long-term consequences if they are not understood correctly. Black Americans who are used to speaking vernacular English can easily be misheard not just by court reporters but also by law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and judges.
A few years ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration retained skilled vernacular speakers to serve as translators of wiretapped phone calls. Later, the federal agency started training field operatives in this English variant, which mostly consists of a few dozen grammatical aspects that differ from standard English. It could be argued that court stenographers could also benefit from such training, but this is not likely to happen in the near future.
Clear language is a pillar of the criminal law practice. Attorneys spend considerable time decoding legalese and explaining things in plain English to their clients. However, criminal defendants should be able to express themselves in the language they are comfortable with. With help from experienced legal counsel, a defendant could accurately communicate with judges and prosecutors. An attorney could also look out for a client’s best interests throughout the legal process.