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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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This study examines the interpreted discourse of nine hearing individuals at various levels of interpreting skill—beginning, intermediate, and advanced. Their signed interpretations of the Miranda warning and an interrogation of a defendant by an attorney were analyzed and compared with regard to two linguistic features: (1) the number of correct lexical items produced and (2) the number of appropriate syntactic markers accomplished through nonmanual signals (i.e., through specific facial and head postures). The findings were dramatic. Skill level had a profound effect on the production of both of these linguistic features.

These findings were mirrored by a separate study of comprehensibility as determined by native Deaf signers. Ten Deaf individuals who acquired ASL as infants and who use it as their primary means of communication rated each of the signed interpretations for comprehensibility. The signed interpretations of the beginning signers were uniformly found to be incomprehensible. The signed interpretations of the intermediate signers were found to be incomprehensible at worst and confusing at best. The signed interpretations of the advanced interpreters were largely found to be fairly clear.

Finally, an ethnographic examination of a criminal case involving a Deaf suspect was conducted. This study included extensive interviews and language testing of the Deaf suspect while the case was still pending, an interview of the attorney representing the Deaf suspect, and a review of court documents relating to whether the alleged confession should be suppressed (i.e., excluded from evidence at a later trial). In short, this examination indicated that a police officer, who had taken less than ten weeks of ASL, had attempted to interpret the linguistically complex Miranda rights and the subsequent interrogation. The Deaf suspect did not understand the Miranda rights—either as it was signed or in the written English form—nor did he understand the subsequent interrogation. Nevertheless, the police in this case alleged that the defendant had understood and waived all of his constitutional rights and that he had confessed to the crime of rape. Later interviews with the attorneys, as well as certified interpreters, indicated that the practice of using policemen with limited signing skills to interpret the Mirandizing and subsequent interrogation of Deaf suspects is the modus operandi of the police in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

Although this study deals with legal rights and processes, prior knowledge of law is not necessary to understand the information contained herein. Legal concepts and procedures are explained as plainly and as simply as possible. In addition, it is important that legal processes, such as police interrogation, not be viewed with too much reverence. The criminal justice system is an integral part of our culture and, as such, should reflect and give meaning to our cultural norms of fairness and equality.


Police Power and Human Rights: The Civilized Constraint of an Extraordinary Power

A civilizing bulwark of a civilized society is its criminal justice system. It is the societal institution that encourages adherence to a society’s prescribed behaviors and avoidance of proscribed behaviors, a crucial endeavor for maintaining social harmony. Enforcing a society’s norms is necessarily predicated on the ability to use brute force against individuals. Arrest, incarceration, taking of property, labeling someone a criminal—all are necessary for the task of maintaining social harmony. But, these police powers, if not constrained, can be intentionally or unintentionally misused against an individual, placing citizens in constant fear of being suddenly and arbitrarily persecuted. The philosopher John Locke explains that such misuse would amount to a taking of an individual’s inalienable right to be free of arbitrary persecution by the government or by other men. It is the protection of these inalienable rights that forms the basis for our submission to government’s power over us. When the state no longer is constrained in such a way to protect these natural rights, the social contract between the individual and his or her government has been violated (Sahakian 1968, 154–55).

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