Language and Social Justice

May 06, 2022

Leanne Bartley is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow whose work on the use of language in the legal system is helping to highlight how what we say may impact the outcome of a court case. Based between Granada University in Spain and Simon Fraser University in Canada, Leanne’s research focuses on two areas of criminal justice: (i) cases of wrongful conviction and (ii) speaking to survivors of sexual assault.

Much of Leanne’s work uses a theoretical model from Systemic Functional Linguistics to analyse courtroom transcripts, as well as media coverage of wrongful conviction cases to determine the syntactic and semantic features of language that correlate to how information within the criminal justice system is portrayed. One famous case that Leanne has looked at so far is that of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five. In this case, five black and Latino teenagers at the time, now men, were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who had been jogging through Manhattan’s Central Park in April 1989. The men served sentences ranging from six to twelve years before all five were exonerated in 2002.

In her analyses of the media coverage of the Central Park Five case, Leanne found that from the beginning of the media coverage, the five young men were construed as enactors of violence while the victim was portrayed as a “miracle lady”. By framing the accused as violent animals, the media likely played a role in influencing public perception towards the men, portraying them as guilty before the case even reached trial and in spite of a lack of physical evidence.

By looking at the way language is used in both the media and the courtroom, Leanne hopes that her research will serve to highlight the power that language has in shaping perceptions of events and individuals and, in turn, how those perceptions can in some cases have a lasting negative effect on an innocent person.

“Language is powerful and I’m not sure that we are really aware of just how powerful it can be.”

Together with the TICLAUS (Transitivity in Courtroom Language: A Unified Solution) research team, Leanne is currently organising the Language, Law and Justice Workshop which will take place online from 18th-20th May. The workshop will feature linguists, criminologists, legal experts and exonerees who will share their research and/or experiences of social justice issues including, but not limited to, crimes of sexual assault and cases of wrongful conviction. To find out more and register for the workshop, visit the TICLAUS website.