Article by Brandon Hughes, Fmr. Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor
As prosecutors, we must recognize that when we deliver an opening statement, closing argument or when we stand before a judge at sentencing – Word Choice Matters. Words have impact. Words evoke images and even stir emotions. Take for instance the words “Crash” and “Accident”. These two words are often used to describe the same event, but in reality each word conjures up a very different image. Any event involving a vehicle and a collision, whether another vehicle is involved or not, is frequently referred to as a traffic accident, one of life’s little mishaps.
Let’s consider this scenario. A car runs a red light and collides with another vehicle in the intersection. Just another traffic accident, right? Now, consider that the driver who ran the red light is driving 70 mph in a 45 mph zone. Still an accident? Suppose that same driver also had a blood alcohol content of 0.14. Would your answer be the same?
An accident is something that cannot be reasonably foreseen or predicted and cannot be avoided. It just happens. A crash, on the other hand, is the result of choices made and risks disregarded. When I hear the word “crash”, I picture a pile-up on the back stretch at Talladega. It’s a word that evokes a violent image and shouts blame. After all, crashes don’t just happen, do they? Somebody is always at fault in a crash. But what about accidents? Nobody’s fault? Just an unfortunate event? Simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does it really matter?
Jurors see the pictures and hear testimony. During the course of a trial, they know victims are dead or injured because of the actions of the defendant. They know it is not really an accident. Don’t they? This is an important question that I suggest you don’t leave unanswered. When you present your case and talk about the “accident scene” and the “accident report” or the “accident investigation”, expect that the defense attorney will do the same. Now, he probably won’t be blatant about it and ask the investigator “Isn’t this simply just an accident?” However, rest assured he will use the term accident as much as he can and most certainly will point out your use of the word to the jury.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is not murder. This was a horrible, terrible accident. You heard the prosecutor refer to this case as an accident yourselves numerous times.”
A really alert defense attorney may even keep count of the number of times you use the term accident and tell the jury. That term could come up several dozen times during a two or three day trial. It is these very arguments that cause a juror during deliberations to try and convince the other 11 that it really was just an accident or cause a judge to give a light sentence because, poor guy, it was just an accident.
Part of the job of a prosecutor is to not only paint an accurate picture to the jury but to also inject emotion into the case. Remember, Word Choice Matters and proper word choice can help paint the correct picture. Your words, your arguments should give meaning to the two dimensional photographs that show the twisted metal and shattered glass. Let the jury know this was in fact a crash, a wreck, a collision, or even an explosion. Make sure they understand that it is not an accident. The defendant did not merely run in to the other car. He was drunk and smashed in to it. Choosing words that have impact help you to get the jury to understand and feel the pain and loss the victims felt.
The term “accident” has become somewhat generic. Consider the little boy killed in a crash because the defendant was high on Meth and blew through a stop sign while running from the police. Do you stand before the court and refer to that event as an accident or a crash? How about the retired couple who are now dead because the defendant was operating his pickup truck at more than 100 mph in a rainstorm causing the defendant to cross the double yellow line and hit their Winnebago head on. Crash or accident? Word Choice Matters.
Now, fast forward to the next time you are standing before a jury asking them to convict some defendant for murder after killing all of the occupants in a car he or she hit. How many times will the defense attorney use the term “accident”? How many times will you?