Changing the words we use to describe a situation can affect what we think about that situation. Using the term “victim” versus “alleged victim” in Utah’s criminal courts can change how people view the presumption of innocence as it applies to a person accused of committing a crime.
Utah Crime Victims Act & Victims’ Rights Definitions
Utah law defines the term “victim” of crime as including any person against whom a crime is alleged to have been committed. See, Utah Code 77-37-2(3), 77-38-2(9). Said another way, the term “victim” includes and encompasses both actual victims and alleged victims, prior to any determination of the actual guilt of the person charged with a crime.
The rationale behind many of Utah’s crime victims’ rights laws is idea that the government’s legal systems and processes should treat with respect a person who is the victim of a crime. It is a good idea. But it is an idea that must be balanced with the presumption of innocence and due process rights that are guaranteed under both state and federal constitutions.
Victim of Crime
- Presumption of Guilt: Referring to someone as a “victim” without the qualifier “alleged” implies an assumption that the person is, in fact, an actual victim of crime. This can, in turn, lead to an assumption that the person charged with the crime did, in fact, commit the crime. This can contribute to a presumption of guilt and create a bias against the accused person.
- Emotional Impact: The term “victim” can carry emotional weight, evoking sympathy and support for the person identified as such. While respect for the victim is appropriate, this emotional response can further undermine the presumption of innocence that should exist.
- Presumption of Innocence: Adding “alleged” before “victim” emphasizes the presumption of innocence for the person accused of a crime. It acknowledges that the accusations are yet to be proven and that important legal processes are still ongoing.
- Neutrality: Using “alleged victim” maintains a more neutral stance and encourages participants in the legal system to withhold judgment until all the facts are presented. It aligns with the principle that individuals are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Which term should we use?
Language plays a crucial role in shaping opinion, and the choice of words can influence the way a person understands and interprets a situation. In deciding what terminology is most appropriate for use in court, we should consider what facts are in dispute along with the the implied meanings of the words and their associated connotations.
Questions of Identity – Victim or Perpetrator
Some criminal cases involve clear evidence that an actual crime has in fact occurred and there may be no real question as to the identity of the victim of that crime. In such cases, the evidence may be much less clear as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime — a “whodunit” case.
Example: A body is found. The medical examiner determines that death was caused by a bullet wound. The absence of gunshot residue (GSR) evidence indicates that the shot was fired from a significant distance and could not be self-inflicted. Police are unable to locate any witnesses, and no weapon is found. Here, the identity of the victim is clear but the identity of the perpetrator is not known.
Other cases may be have clear evidence identifying the person who committed the crime, but may leave open the question of who the victim might be.
Example: A person is charged after attempting to pawn a variety of items at a local pawn shop. The suspect confesses to police that he knew the items were stolen, but maintains that he received the property from another individual and does not know the identity of the original true owners of the property. The identity of the perpetrator is known, but the identity of the victim or victims is unknown.
Questions of What Happened
Many criminal cases involve very little or no doubt as to who was involved, but the evidence leaves big questions about what actually happened. Domestic violence charges, alleged sex crimes, or cases involving incidents between friends or neighbors can involve a classic “he said – she said” scenario.
The identity of both involved parties can be very clear. But conflicting recollections or versions of events may can lead to very different conclusions as to whether a crime really committed. In some cases, there is no actual victim of crime because no actual crime was committed.
Reminding the Courts of the Presumption of Innocence
Utah law does not prohibit the use of the phrase “alleged victim” in court, even though the term “victim” includes the concept of an alleged victim. Strategic use of the “alleged” modifier in connection with a victim can help to remind prosecutors and judges that a person accused of a crime is only “alleged” to have committed the crime. Absent a negotiated resolution or a verdict of guilty at trial, the presumption of innocence should remain in full force.
The words we use in describing a situation, a thing, a status, etc. and the words we use in presenting our legal arguments in court can influence the opinions and attitudes of judges, juries, and prosecutors. Those words should be chosen carefully.