Person reference, identity, and linguistic violence in capital trials

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This study examines the ways in which lawyers exploit person reference in the context of the penalty phase of capital trials. Based upon twelve closing arguments from six capital trials, the quantitative and qualitative analysis explicates how the defendant and victim are made into certain kinds of people and identifies stark characteristic patterns by opposing lawyers. Specifically, the use of reference terms in this context constitutes a representation of “linguistic violence” by the prosecution. This is achieved by estranging the individual on trial while invoking solidarity for the victims (mainly through proper names), silencing and backgrounding other characteristics of the defendant while highlighting those of the victims (mainly through functionalizations), and assigning full agency to the defendant and emphasizing violence done to the victims (mainly through identifications and impersonalizations). In contrast, attempts by the defense are also witnessed that neutralize or defeat such linguistic violence by selecting terms that personalize and contextualize the person on trial while silencing the issues of damage and victimization, and that attribute violent acts to other causes, thereby reducing the individual's full agency and responsibility. I argue that this extreme, and, at times, problematic and disturbing referential practice morally and normatively constructs, as the discourse unfolds on a moment-by-moment basis, the heinousness of the crime as well as the dangerousness and incorrigibility of the defendant, potentially leading to jury recommendations for death sentences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)90-104
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
StatePublished - 2019 Mar


  • Capital trial
  • Closing argument
  • Courtroom discourse
  • Identity
  • Penalty phase
  • Person reference


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