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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

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who examined how well Deaf college students at Gallaudet understood the Miranda warning interpreted by RID-certified interpreters. Vernon found that the students possessed less than a full comprehension of their constitutional rights. Similarly, Fant, Smith, Solow, and Witter-Merithew (1992) have discussed a disparity between hearing and deaf individuals’ understanding of the criminal process. Therefore, they suggest that an interpretation should include information implicit in the spoken text to increase the likelihood of authentic understanding of one’s constitutional rights. This technique is certainly supported by the Miranda decision and its progeny, for it was the arrested individual’s actual understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights that the Supreme Court sought to achieve through the Miranda warning, as opposed to a dogmatic adherence to frozen text regardless of understanding.

In summary, the comprehensibility findings further demonstrate that interpreting skill level dramatically affects the comprehensibility of the Miranda rights and interrogation. Only the signed interpretations of the advanced interpreters were found to be fairly clear or clear. I would suggest that the interpretations of the beginner and intermediate interpreters—which Deaf subjects found confusing at best—would not produce an authentic understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.



What follows is an ethnographic description of a criminal case involving the interrogation of a Deaf defendant, which I investigated as it was still unfolding. On October 27, 2000, police arrested a young Deaf man on the suspicion that he had raped a hearing woman. I will refer to him as Jason White. Jason’s attorney contacted me a few weeks after the interrogation. At that point, I conducted several interviews with Jason and his attorney. As part of the interviews, I assessed Jason’s ASL and English language skills. I obtained and reviewed a transcript of what was spoken (not signed) during the interrogation. I also obtained a Miranda waiver form that Jason had signed and reviewed it with him. Finally, because a police officer had attempted to act as Jason’s interpreter during the reading of the Miranda rights and subsequent interrogation, I obtained and reviewed the teaching materials and syllabus for the beginning ASL course the police officer had taken.


What follows is a description of the legal linguistic aspects of the arrest and interrogation of Jason White, who was arrested on October 27, 2000, on the suspicion of having raped his girlfriend.

Jason was born in a small town in southwest Ohio. His parents were hearing. Consequently, Jason’s first exposure to ASL occurred when he began attending elementary school. The school provided him with a sign language interpreter. Although he had never seen ASL before, Jason began acquiring the language by watching the interpreter sign. Despite this less-than-optimal language acquisition process—with the student only having access to a second-language learner who interprets only classroom discourse—Jason acquired ability sufficient for him to communicate on a basic level with the interpreters at his school. There were no other Deaf students at his school.

Jason was less successful at gaining competence at English. At the time of his arrest, his reading and writing skills were approximately at a third-grade level, within the norm for most Deaf adults. This is not surprising given that he could not hear English, in contrast to the hearing children who only needed to learn a written form of their native English language and have phonetic cues to help them master the writing system.

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