Simpson Lawyers Twist the Language to Suit Their Need
The O.J. Simpson defense team has a tactful way of describing wife beating--"domestic discord.”
You may not use those words. You probably think of domestic discord as disagreeing with your spouse over vacations, money or raising the kids. It’s arguing about whether to go to the movies or stay home. It can be a short-term difference of opinion or one that stretches over the years, escalating to irreconcilable differences and divorce.
But “domestic discord” doesn’t accurately describe beating your wife so badly that she ends up at the hospital, bruised and scratched. Nor does it characterize breaking in the back door and screaming obscenities at her. That’s how Simpson behaved during quarrels with Nicole Brown Simpson, who was later found stabbed to death with a friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Domestic discord, however, was the phrase used by Simpson attorney Gerald Uelmen in court Thursday as he tiptoed around the Simpsons’ violent relationship.
When I first heard him say it, I thought the phrase was a common legal term for domestic violence. Uelmen, after all, is the retired dean of Santa Clara University Law School and must know what he is talking about. So I called Paul Mones of Santa Monica, a nationally known attorney specializing in that branch of the law.
“I have done family-related cases my entire career, since 1978, and . . . I have never heard that phrase used in my life,” he said.
He said it reminded him of when the United States carpet-bombed Cambodia and called the event “an incursion.”
This is not an empty argument about semantics. Rather, it gives us a clue to the defense strategy in attempting to discredit the case against Simpson, where prosecutors are trying to prove three crucial elements: motive, intent and identity.
If the prosecution can prove Simpson was a violent, abusive husband, it would help establish Simpson had a motive, and that he set out that night with intent to kill his wife. Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon, the D.A.'s domestic violence expert, touched on this Thursday when he cited a study of 1,500 murders in which there was a pattern of abuse that climaxed in homicide.
Establishing a pattern of abuse would also help pin down Simpson’s identity as the killer, bolstering DNA evidence the prosecution says will place him at the death scene. With such evidence before the jury, the defense will need a convincing argument to persuade the jurors that the killer was someone else.
That is why the defense is working so hard to keep the damaging word “violence” out of the courtroom, replacing it with the less threatening word, “discord.”
All this was brought to my attention by Henry Weinstein, a Times legal affairs writer. It reminded him of Newspeak, the language invented by the totalitarian rulers in George Orwell’s book “1984" to keep the populace under control.
In Newspeak, the meaning of words was distorted or reversed. Words associated with such concepts as freedom were eliminated. Instead of liberty, one would say “crimethink.” Forced labor camps were “joycamps.” The Ministry of War was called “Minipax,” short for the Ministry of Peace. On the huge pyramid-shaped structure housing the Ministry of Truth there were three slogans: “War Is Peace.” “Freedom Is Slavery.” “Ignorance Is Strength.”
Newspeak is an extreme example of the kind of semantic twisting that is done all the time by those trying to influence public opinion.
Republicans, for example, refer to the “Democrat” Party, not wanting to give their foes credit for being democratic. The current debate over politically correct language revolves around the belief that language shapes our thinking.
Consider the debate over abortion. One one side is pro-choice, which means pro-abortion. On the other is pro-life, or anti-abortion. It just depends on how you look at it. At the Simpson trial, the prosecution invariably calls Simpson “the defendant,” rather than Mr. Simpson, which is how the defense refers to him. Prosecutors want to make sure he is perceived as a suspect on trial, not O.J. Simpson, the well-remembered football star.
When I talked to attorney Mones, the family abuse law specialist, he said the use of semantics is “fair game” in a trial.
“We must remember what trials boil down to is the art of persuasion,” he said, “and persuasion is only done by words. Lawyers are known for being artists with words. The prosecution and defense are well aware of these subtleties.”
What concerns him is that the language of the defense is beginning to be picked up by the media. Occasionally, you’ll see, hear or read news stories that refer to the “domestic discord” issue in the trial.
“Once the lawyers use the words it enters the vernacular,” Mones said. “In their reporting, the reporters will regard what the lawyers say as pearls of wisdom from the experts. It’s classic objective reporting--reporting what they say . . . uncritical reporting.”
If this turns out to be true, it would be a giant step in news manipulation, the ultimate spin. Up to now, the attorneys have pretty well spun their version of the Simpson story in English. Now they’re using Newspeak.