Racial discrimination can affect many aspects of the criminal prosecution, trial and sentencing of people in South Carolina. One often-overlooked aspect of racial disparities in the criminal justice system involves the mistaken recording and understanding of Black English in the courtroom. One study examined court stenographers in Philadelphia, finding that they made errors in two-fifths of the sentences spoken in Black English grammar and accurately paraphrased only a third of the content.
This issue is not limited to stenographers. Court records are often of critical importance on appeal and during a review of a defendant’s testimony later in a case. Therefore, misunderstandings of a speaker’s meaning can have a major impact on fundamental questions of innocence or guilt. In one case, an arrested man who said, “give me a lawyer, dawg” was subjected to continued interrogation and not provided with an attorney. Police claimed that the man had requested a “lawyer dog” and not exercised his right to an attorney. The misunderstanding of black witnesses, defendants and victims can play a significant role in poor outcomes, especially given the multitude of factors that contribute to racial disparity and discrimination in the criminal system.
Discussing these issues forthrightly may be met with derisive responses or attempts to classify Black English as mere slang or improper grammar. In reality, Black English patterns of speech are just as clear and appropriate as other forms of expression. Additional training and linguistics classes for stenographers may be important to understanding testimony from people with different grammatical patterns, accents and forms of enunciation.
People accused of a crime may face serious concerns about how to protect their rights from the first moment that they are approached or questioned by police. A criminal defense attorney can work with people facing charges to challenge police and prosecution narratives, confront civil rights violations and present a strong defense.