When Dictionaries Are a Matter of Life or Death…

Supreme Court, dictionaries, gavelTwo recent events have raised the complicated question of whether or not dictionaries belong in courtrooms. A murder trial in Virginia was disrupted because the jurors illicitly consulted two dictionaries and a thesaurus. (The defense is currently seeking a mistrial.) And even on the Supreme Court it seems dictionaries are being misused.

In the past, judges have resorted to the dictionary to decide important trials, but typically they consulted law dictionaries, not general dictionaries. But are they now taking definitions out of context to support their own point of view?

In legalese, a dictionary is a “secondary authority” in a case. Just as a congressional hearing could be used to better understand the intent of a specific law, a law dictionary can be consulted to enhance the meaning of a general word like “malice” or “lawful.” Law dictionaries often cite specific cases and the past use of the word in court documents. General dictionaries do not give the contextual definition of a word, which is usually the issue at hand in subtle court analyses. In fact, law dictionaries often cite the difference between how a word is used generally versus legally. In this excerpt from Black’s Law Dictionary, Second Edition, the word “malice” is distinguished: “‘Malice,’ in its common acceptation, means ill will towards some person. In its legal sense, it applies to a wrongful act done intentionally, without legal justification or excuse.” This direct distinction implies that the “common application” of a word might not always be applicable in a legal context.

According to The Washington Post, the Supreme Court has an intense, new interest in dictionaries. In two out of the ten cases presented last year, the justices consulted and directly referenced dictionaries in their court decisions. A law professor and a political scientist, though, argue that this marked use of dictionaries is intended to project an “objective veneer” on a subjective decision. There is no consistency with which judges use certain dictionaries over others; it appears that the justices consult and quote whichever dictionary best supports their position, even referring to different dictionaries within the same brief. To these professors, this reliance on the dictionary is troubling because dictionaries themselves do not purport to include every legal implication of a particular word. (Read the complete analysis.)

Recently, in Virginia, a case had to be re-evaluated when it came to light that the jurors were using dictionaries. Court employees found two dictionaries and a thesaurus in the deliberation room, and these unauthorized secondary authorities called the entire case into question. The jurors were interviewed about the use of these dictionaries, and the judge ruled that there was juror misconduct. The defense lawyer is now seeking a mistrial because the jurors looked up the words “malice” and “malicious” to decide whether or not the defendant was guilty of “manslaughter” or “murder.” This court’s decision reveals that dictionaries can be misused and adversely influence the outcome of a case. So why are they widely used by the highest court?

Do you think general dictionaries should be allowed in court deliberations?


  1. Milan Korda -  January 10, 2014 - 8:38 pm

    I think that it is also important to consider the differences between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ concepts in Legal Theory to appropriately understand the Judiatrics / Jurisprudence decision making involved.
    Not only from a legalistic perspective which also pertains towards the rules of evidence, case authorities/common law approach but also moral and ethical dimensions to decision makings.
    Milan Korda

  2. Milan Korda -  August 24, 2013 - 2:03 am

    however…to furthermore adduce a few elements to the (supra) discussion , among hundreds of precedents, common law legal constructs, rules and Judge made laws… secondary sources such as ordinary dictionaries are a preferable source of reference.

    To substantiate the above statement, a common dictionary is a reflection of the general norm of societal values attached to words. Whether the dictionary does not exactly reflect the heterogenous condition of our western world, it is still enough to encapsulate perhaps the meaning and the social context of the word.
    Thus , if one is to interpret the constitutional law, ordinary statutory interpretation techniques ought to be given, eg: usually in non rigid constitutions such as Australian Constitution; where the constitution is always speaking thus can be interpreted using current social context + with some utilisation of the previous consensus regarding the interpretation of sections. This is where the use of precedents is applied and arguments substantiated.

    It is all about the play for words.
    On the similar note, as we live in ( generally ) in a post modern age , i am implying here; we need to take in to the account what words mean to different people. Once more, society is a heterogenous mass, like an orange, it is not as homogenous and solidified , moreover when neo liberal systems impose particular attitudes that lead towards atomisation, pro choice, individualization and deteritorialization of identity and self of the community eg: local community.

    So laws and statutes do not exactly apply to all equally as people will not recognise the law equally.
    I will not go in to this, however interpretation of any statute ought to employ every possible approach, whether literal, purposive , golden, mischievous and or both narrow and strained interpretations.

    And do not forged the elements of the good government … legislatures will always intend to preserve human rights thus the constituents of the good government are: transparency , emphasis on human liberties, social utility, accountability and articulation of rule of law and avoidance of any usurpation of power eg: ultra vires.

    best regards
    Milan Korda Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice

  3. PG -  July 8, 2013 - 8:31 am

    The idea that jurors cannot consult general dictionary does not make sense because where else did they learn most of their words in their spoken language and hone their meaning. If 11 jurors are well read and know the dictionary meaning of all the words used, they will not be asking for the meaning of any of the words – legal meaning or general meaning. They will use the general meaning unless instructed otherwise by the judge in his instructions which are given at the end of the trial and not the beginning of the trial.

    So what wrong does it do if the 12th juror to whom a particular word may be new consults a dictionary to learn the general meaning that the 11 others already know.

    We live our lives working with the general meaning of the words we use.

    One may come to the jury with all the knowledge in the world but cannot look up one word he is not clear about. That just does not make common sense.

  4. Jean -  July 1, 2013 - 2:55 am

    I think dictionaries should be allowed. Both the search a word dictionary and law dictionary would be helpful. For example if the lawyer is to solve something, but not sure what punishment to give or what word to use, they can refer to the dictionary. If one important word is said wrongly, it could lead to problems. Lawyers can’t remember everything too.

  5. Ozaru -  February 8, 2013 - 6:17 am

    As someone who regularly translates legal documents, has interpreted in legal proceedings, and has also done jury service, my view is that dictionaries (general, legal, technical, bilingual, all sorts) should be allowed — better some reference than none, and better a citable authority than hearsay or personal prejudice — but that no dictionary should ever be relied upon as ‘gospel truth’. All have their faults, and the definitions themselves are also subject to interpretation (which is why trained professionals are essential, and recourse to case law & past judgments so important). I have seen cases where ridiculous decisions were made based on the ‘authority’ of a dictionary, without tempering it with experience & knowledge in the particular area, as well as common sense. Sadly even some of the top lawyers I have encountered, despite being scarily intelligent and articulate, lack an understanding of how language usage varies with time, location and numerous other factors.

  6. majorbedlam -  February 7, 2013 - 11:10 am

    It always makes me sad when I read these comments on an article. Usually no more than once or twice in a month. We (my wife and I) use the dictionary.com site as a homepage. Previously I would have said they sadden me because of the degradation of my native language. This afternoon I ,for some reason, plugged in a bit of slightly painful self honesty and found that reason to be way too judgmental. What twangs my heartstrings is the apparent lengths that so many folks are willing to go to (anonymously) to make strangers think they know things that they probably don’t. About these comments today. I think that Sanusi Gafar 020513 0730hrs even with or maybe because of the slight typo made the most genuine comment of all. And Lee 020513 1503hrs, if you’re a trial judge I’ll eat the statute of liberty with only a bit of good brown mustard and give you a week to draw a crowd. There. I’ve also been an anonymous smart ass. The flesh is indeed weak.

  7. The Great One -  February 7, 2013 - 9:49 am

    How in the hell do you use a dictionary illicitly? Unless it was used as a weapon.

  8. Madi -  February 7, 2013 - 8:15 am

    I think this article was very interesting. And to answer your question, Dan, we should care. This could really change our court system… In a good way OR a bad way!


  9. LS -  February 7, 2013 - 7:08 am

    Lawyers should have to speak in 8th grade English just as the usual standard of writing for the general public.

    They need to stop trying to confuse the issue and start trying to educate the public.

    It’s that simple.

  10. rabiia -  February 6, 2013 - 7:33 pm

    yes a normal dictionary can be used in a court of law to judge cases.

  11. Jaylin Silverfield -  February 6, 2013 - 5:43 pm

    I belive that the law should allow for a dictionary to be in use, however, as a few have said, a single dictionary should be chosen by the people to be used in trial, in this government we claim is FOR the people. We should be allowed some of our almost literal Constitutional rights! The meanings of word change, and sometimes multiply beyond what we preiviously belived. A defendant may meant a certian definiotion to a word, butanother one altogether may pop up into our minds, and a dictionary could allow us to explore the possible outcomes of different definitions of a single word in our immense, confusing English vocabulary. Sorry about any spelling errors on my part, I have my dog leaning on my arm as I type and my hand is numb…

  12. Milan Korda -  February 6, 2013 - 5:00 pm

    to add a few things too

    when a judge charges the jury (while giving them instructions during the trial especially a criminal trial) if memory serves me right , the judge will define the terminology to the jury.

    another thing … the case that i cited is the case that ought not to be mixed up with history , we’re talking about 17th-18th century here.

    The case merely exemplifies the fact that if the intention of the parliament says in the statute that (gross) is … defined in a particular way…then the judge is allowed to interpret it the way he or she wants to a reasonable point.

    the dictionary is a good source however legal constructs differ from mainstream social constructs of words, but do not far deviate.

    to further add…jury might be an organ to the bench, however they are there to add value in judgements and show the populace that it is not the state that will prosecute but the citizens of he state too as in the role of a jury.

    I think that we should not mix the theory of Jurisprudence and legal theory too much in the procedural matters or should we?

    Saying all this above, if the judge is ready to interpret the law the way they want to and no matter what word might sound different to jury of not understandable , if the judge is ready to tell what the law is and break the doctrine of separation of powers, then what is it to ignore the jury’s opinion?

    i guess my area is in social sciences, not law (exactly)

    kind regards to ya all ps: make sure you cite some case laws, it will be interesting.

  13. steeljam -  February 6, 2013 - 1:21 pm

    It seems to me that it is jurors should be able to understand the cases as fully as possible. It cannot be assumed that they know the meaning of legal terms and in order to that they can the proceedings should be done in layman’s terms.
    The legal terminology should be either explained as it is used and also be made available, by the court possibly with approval by the judge, prosecution and defence, for reference during deliberation.
    If any argument is to be made for a mistrial it should be based on failure to present an understandable case.

  14. Zamono -  February 6, 2013 - 12:46 pm

    If we are all to be equal under the law, then we the people should be using the dictionary that best represents the language of the people in the jury’s deliberation room as well as the court room itself and the judge’s chambers.

    In my assessment, it is the responsibility of the judge to cleary articulate the elements of the law that have to be proved to their satisfaction in order to render a conviction as well as clear the person should they have not violated the contents of those elements.

    As you may expect, the prosecution will “bend” or temper the meanings of the law and the plantiff’s actions to meet the conviction standard during their opening statement and summation. Likewise, the defense attorney may very well temper their opening statement and summation to reflect their client’s actions as not having even come close to standards conatined in the terms used in the elements of the law allegedly broken.

    There is a high probability that unless the juror worked in the legal system, such as the military’s UCMJ, or our judicial system in America, they would be unaware of something called, “Blacks Law Dictionary”. One of our well known presidents in history, Abe Lincoln, once used the phrase,”of the people, by the people and for the people” when he was begining to heal the wounds of the nation as he delivered his “Gettysburg Address”. Our laws are developed by the people as a representation of the people and for the people and should be therefore accepted by all the people whether doing business, living their lives or defending their actions in a court of law.

  15. NathanJensen -  February 6, 2013 - 11:12 am

    No. This falls under the Judge’s role to guide the jury toward a verdict. If the jurors did not ask the question, it is the jurors’ fault and a mistrial seems like the most likely remedy.

    Also, why is the burden on the jury in trial to differentiate between manslaughter and murder? Shouldn’t the State seek one or the other based on their facts and then let the jury decide guilty or not guilty? Putting that question to the jury makes them more than fact-finders.

  16. Joel -  February 6, 2013 - 10:43 am

    If the jurors need the legal definition of a word, all they need to do is ask the judge — this averts the possibility of a mistrial or juror misconduct.

  17. VM -  February 6, 2013 - 10:19 am

    When I was a legal assistant to a municpal court judge our jury instructions included the definitions of any words that jurors could mistakenly apply general definitions to. Use of additional dictionaries was not necessary.

  18. chris -  February 6, 2013 - 9:47 am

    No. If a juror has a question about the definition of a word, they need to ask the court for a definition. There may be words or terms that have been defined through case law, and each case should reflect the court’s definition of the word, not some random dictionary’s.

    And as for judges–they are not supposed to be coming up with their “opinion” just based on what is in their head. They have to use precedent in helping them decide cases, so there is nothing wrong with allowing them to rely on an appropriate dictionary. Judges are not appointed because they are expected to know everything, or be “headstrong enough,” whatever that means here. The opinion they write is not their own, but the opinion of the court, and should reflect that–not some personal thoughts or beliefs.

  19. Steve -  February 6, 2013 - 8:41 am

    Fascinating! Jurors are not allowed to use a general dictionary because the standard definition of a word may differ from the legal definition; however, these same jurors are allowed to use their basic understanding of a word, which most likely originated from a general dictionary rather than a legal one. Stupidity personified.

  20. Natalie Johnson -  February 6, 2013 - 6:58 am

    If our legal system asks jurors to determine whether or not their peer has broken the law, which it does, they must understand the legal definition, NOT the Webster’s definition of the term in question. It should be the responsibility of the legal professionals, primarily the Judge, to instruct jurors on legal definitions they need to understand in order to completely and correctly perform their duties.

  21. PROSNO -  February 6, 2013 - 6:53 am

    Milan Korda wrote: “It has always been for the courts to tell what the law is.” That is only half true. This implies the jury must accept the law. That proposition flies in the face of over a thousand years of jurisprudence. Juries have always had the right to nullify corrupt laws by refusing to convict and ignoring the judges’ instructions. To say otherwise is to make the jury an organ of the bench, rather than an organ of the people.

  22. PROSNO -  February 6, 2013 - 6:49 am

    Historically, for most of our Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon common law heritage, juries of our people have had the right and duty to judge both the facts AND THE LAW. The law is on trial just as much as the defendant is on trial. This is the only bulwhark of justice against unjust laws.

    Since the war between the states, the traitors in our judicial system have consistently lied to juries by telling them they only are to judge the facts, and the judge will judge and define the law. This is trial by government, not trial by jury, and in every instance it is a seditious conspiracy against the liberties of the people.

    A jury has the right to strike down unjust laws. This is why prohibition was repealed. At a certain point, juries refused to convict even if the facts indicated the defendant had violated the law. Now when juries do this, the traitors and power-mongers in the government call it a “runaway jury” or “jury nullification” and they actually try to imply it is “anti-government.” Using these propaganda terms, they deny us our right to a trial by jury and make it a defacto trial by the judges instructions. A trial by a jury that is forbidden from judging the law is not a trial; it is a star chamber tribunal. No wonder the federal prosecutors have a 96 percent conviction rate.

  23. Cassandra -  February 6, 2013 - 6:16 am

    At first, it seems like the use of a dictionary by a juror would be a good thing, as you don’t want them making decisions based on words that they don’t understand. However, what is critical to remember is that words have different meanings in the legal context than they do in general usage, and these meanings are important in proving elements of a case; that’s why we have a separate (and very large) law dictionary. I have seen clear cut cases get decided entirely the wrong way by a jury because they obviously applied the common meaning of a word or phrase as opposed to its meaning in the legal context. Jurors ought to rely on the jury instructions to explain these terms of art, and if there is a word they feel like they need to look up, that’s what questions to the judge are for.

  24. Joe -  February 6, 2013 - 5:52 am

    Those are terms they should already know. Look at all the people who have difficulties getting a job, and the juror looks over to a dictionary like one of many K-12 students who are required to view a dictionary.

    At least I know Hollywood does a good job for actors by hiring someone who ACTUALLY does a job very well, whether it a lawyer or military soldier, who can help actors get into the form likely for a … …. PROFESSIONe. (Remember that professions involve the word professional, and a professional is known to be highly acquainted with the given tasks.)

    I know Americans, or people, are all “free,” but when you’re a judge or juror, you’re supposed to make justice for the INNOCENCE of people! That means: If ALL judges/jurors can be perfect, or well-soiled on how to figure out a case, THEN we’d all be pleased to be served!

  25. Josh T -  February 6, 2013 - 4:16 am

    Why should they not be used? Think about it, if i looked up a word years ago in 2nd grade english class and now that same word comes up in a trial, I’m using that same definition regardless of the time in wich i learned it. That dictionary still informed my decision. What are we supposed to do, make a decision based on what we think a word might mean? If we do not know the mathematical definition of a word, we are being informed strictly by the storytelling and emotions of the speaker, which can cloud the judgement even of an educated person who knows the words.

  26. Will -  February 6, 2013 - 2:56 am

    It is important because the legal meaning of malice, for example, is not he meaning given in a dictionary! Malice aforethought is the required mental element for murder, but most people might assume [especially if you consult a dictionary] that this requires some form of premeditation or that motive is relevant for the purposes of establishing criminal intention- which it isn’t. Definitions of particular terms are provided by judicial directions to the jury.

  27. Bubba -  February 6, 2013 - 1:49 am

    Yes. Provided that the same dictionary edition is used as a standard. Then there is a common reference point that will determine which definition is to be used. My interpretation of a word or term could be very different from the juror sitting on my left while the person on my right might have yet another idea altogether. At least this way, everyone will be (ahem) on the same page.

  28. liliya tokar -  February 6, 2013 - 12:27 am

    we are all human beings!!! we can’t remember all words and sometimes we do need to use the dictionary …duh

  29. Aden Aw Hirsi -  February 5, 2013 - 11:49 pm

    I give you an example: The other day I was in Doha, Qatar to justify a project to a potential donor. We checked our books more than three times in one session.

    What is the difference between books?

  30. Aden Aw Hirsi -  February 5, 2013 - 11:45 pm

    Using a dictionary in the courtroom is just like scratching your head thinking for a while in there.

    I don’t see anything wrong with consulting it in the courtroom.

  31. M.A.D -  February 5, 2013 - 10:52 pm

    To: Brooks OVerholt,

    Rediculous? Point made.

  32. Ann -  February 5, 2013 - 8:56 pm

    definitely not, just law dictionaries
    it should be pretty obvious whether or not the person committed murder

  33. Wayne Boyce -  February 5, 2013 - 6:39 pm

    Everybody missed the point. The Judge had in his instructions to the Jury defined the terms. What was happening in the jury room with the Dictionaries was a smart alec juror arguing with the definition given by the court and bringing dictionaries with definitions that supported him/her. If the Judge makes a mistake in defining the legal terms, the Appellate Court can correct that error – If the Jury makes a mistake reading a dictionary in the Jury the mistake can not be corrected and justice will not be served. (At least this is the legal theory.)

  34. aliyah -  February 5, 2013 - 5:52 pm

    no. the word might mean a different thing

  35. unknown -  February 5, 2013 - 5:12 pm


  36. BARABARA -  February 5, 2013 - 5:01 pm


  37. VPG -  February 5, 2013 - 4:46 pm

    I think that dictionaries and other word references sources should be allowed in strict moderation in courts. For one thing, it is quite obvious that if they are using the dictionary whose definition best suits their case, they are in the wrong and are just attempting to use whatever unprofessional means they can to achieve their goal. The court actually might want to draft out a set of regulations involving which dictionaries are allowed in court and when they can be used. Limiting it to one or two standardized law and contemporary dictionaries seems like the best method for dispelling confusion on the topic. That this problem has not yet come up or been addressed in America surprises me somewhat.

  38. Saige -  February 5, 2013 - 4:20 pm

    I think that they should use regular dictionaries instead of the “legal” dictionaries. But, the reason we care, Dan, is if you were on trial, wouldn’t you want a fair trial?

  39. YeahIReadThis -  February 5, 2013 - 4:17 pm

    Jurors using a dictionary illicitly? Were there jurors sneaking pocket dictionaries out of their clothes or something? Words having separate meanings in court all have to do with law. The court and language (terms) are between lawyers, the law, and the judge; ‘subtle language’ is usually between the same- law degree many yrs. Legal implications of words are probably between lawyers, the law, and the judge. Those terms come to question for a jury in the verdict process, it would seem to me something is wrong. Lots of subjects and occupations have their own terms and spin on terms, court seems to have quite a few. Fair trial, a requirement of an attempt at a fair trial, seems to me, is having a lawyer, I would say an above average lawyer. A side using unknown words, or maybe a word and then maybe many following words out of common word use, is a tactic, especially when used with a subject not everyone understands.

    Maybe if the court was looking up words, or the prosecution, or the judge, there would be relevance. Usually if a word is unknown someone asks what it means. As for dictionaries not being allowed in court, I wouldn’t be surprised. Judges have to check what a word means, and if a jury has to/aka contextual definitions, it would be after they discuss?

    They called the case in to question because, what was probably the defense, was grabbing at a shred of a case, and in some cases, a case that may or may not objectively, or actually, exist. There: relevant information that had been mentioned is made impossible.

    Out of date dictionaries, for example, used by jury members, could be called in to question.

    Whether a dictionary used by a judge, in court, biases a judge, may never be solved, but will likely be brought up in every trial.

  40. Milan Korda -  February 5, 2013 - 4:16 pm

    there is also an interested study that aims at distinguishing between Judicial reason and the scientific reason.

    by saying this in cases of expert witnesses an expert witness may sit and give evidence, be cross examined and so on.

    however the court / judiciary are the ones that tell what is right, and how much is two plus two; where in such cases an expert witness is thanked and asked to resume their seat.
    pseudo science/technical knowledge and law are two different animals of knowledge.
    both use language and words ( words ) thus sometimes can not be conflated with the circumstances and facts of the case.
    i do understand that we need the words to know what actually happened, was it gross negligence, or a malicious act or a breach of duty of care or that the person acted unreasonably and or whether we should impute the age of the offender or use a word (probable) thus say ” it is more probable than not”
    where in fact probable generally pertains to the mathematical side of statistics with empirical value rather than speculative value based on inductive and or deductive reasoning and process of inference.
    it is hard to conflate the science, math and the world out there with the legal world.
    Judges are very intelligent, they would not be judges for no reason. They are the people who can find any truth in anything with out the need for calculus or fourer transform formulas.
    For example in civil (Torts) cases the term ‘calculus of negligence’ , again nothing to do with calculus found in higher math, it is a mere word that empowers the legal thinkers to calculate through reasoning that the person ought to have taken reasonable steps to prevent and or avoid or to warn the party about the probable harm, and or whether the person acted reasonably as a typical person would have done so as per objective person’s test.

    Words here have a different meaning, just as they would have their own meaning in physical sciences or in civil engineering.

    Both are great knowledge and who ever can master then and get to the truth is a genius and I think that Law is.

    kind regards

  41. Airaaessa -  February 5, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    Who has the time to write an essay on this topic?! And at 2:15 in the morning?! What were you thinking, Milan Corda?! (Sorry if this sound rude)

  42. Airaaessa -  February 5, 2013 - 4:12 pm

    That is just plain sad. The judges had to use a DICTIONARY to decide if murder is a crime?! Just because some idiot has a lame vocabulary does NOT mean he should be deciding if they are guilty or not by the way their crime fits into the dictionary. What’s next? An Ouija board?!!!

  43. Larry -  February 5, 2013 - 3:29 pm

    Milan Korda, you are exactly why dictionaries are needed in court. You spout off words with no difinition or meaning. And you KNOW that not everyone on that jury understands what you are saying or what you mean. But you are counting on your body language and inuendo to sway their opinion, even when the truth is far removed from what you are saying.

    You, and others like you, are the reason that the vast majority of citizens in this country have absolutly no respect for your legal system. You are nothing but a con man (or woman) with no integrity.

    To quote a dictionary… “Hypocrisy results when one part of a value system is demonstrably at odds with another and the person or group of people holding those values fails to account for the discrepancy. Hypocrisy is considered to be the opposite of integrity.”

    Why are you afraid of allowing the jury to gain knowledge? Are you afraid they will learn the truth of the situation?

  44. Gary Baker -  February 5, 2013 - 3:28 pm

    In the interest of justice I believe it would be wise to have a jury that is knowledgeable of the terms used . A dictionary would be of great benefit as the English language is constantly changing. As an example the word ” shambles ” . In Shakesperean times it meant a meet market. In today’s vernacular the word denotes something in disarray. So referring back to the question my thoughts are that ‘yes, a dictionary legal or otherwise should be available to all jurors.

  45. Flicker Light -  February 5, 2013 - 3:26 pm

    I think they should have them, maybe.
    It kind of confuses me.

  46. can't tell my name -  February 5, 2013 - 3:11 pm

    wow so cool who knew that that you could like sue the supreme court.

  47. lee -  February 5, 2013 - 3:03 pm

    I am a trial judge. Our jury instructions always include specific language that a jury cannot consult a dictionary or any other outside source. The reason for that is the parties have the absolute right to know exactly what evidence the jury is considering in reaching its decision. The Court and the parties are responsible for providing the jurors with approved definitions of legal terms. Malice is a a word that has a specific legal definition in statute and I have always provided jurors with that definition when malice is an issue.

  48. alisha -  February 5, 2013 - 2:32 pm

    why do we even care about whats going on

  49. Ed -  February 5, 2013 - 2:14 pm

    If you need a dictionary the court should supply one or the laws need to be wrote so the majority can understand what is said.

  50. Jose Chavez -  February 5, 2013 - 2:07 pm

    I believe that only the required book allowed to be accepted in court should be the Law version of the dictionary. It is crucial in understanding the difference between malice, manslaughter, murder, forethought. and such.
    All words spoken with related to the case detail and specifics should be accurate and concise with the trial.
    I don’t believe in throwing out a case in which a Juror member used the dictionary to look up words that are important to the case. A re-analysis of the meaning(if its a different meaning given in the regular dictionary than the legal version).

  51. Nikolai -  February 5, 2013 - 1:59 pm

    The top level government court using only the source that supports their point of view? Well that’s a shocking revelation. . . . .If you live in a different dimension and reality from what is known as planet earth… Or have a left point of view

  52. Tiffany -  February 5, 2013 - 1:43 pm

    This is werid.

  53. Rolanda -  February 5, 2013 - 1:42 pm

    This is a bit outrageous. They are using dictionaries. Jurors have been to law school right? How do they not know anything?

  54. Leo Valdez -  February 5, 2013 - 1:35 pm

    That’s so weird! Who needs dictionaries in court? And illicit use of a dictionary? Really people!?!?

  55. Hebeestie Wallopman -  February 5, 2013 - 1:16 pm

    No, General dictionaries have no place in deliberations, if the jury desires clarification they can put in a request to the judge and the judge can clarify for them.

    Like cellphones, Dictionaries should be banned from the jury room.

  56. Bob Bembenek, Sr -  February 5, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    Of course. In order to serve justice a jury will need to know how the law interpets a word, as well as how the work is meant in society, the defandants’ or the prosecutions’ thinking.

    That’s my thoughts. What are yours?


  57. Jim -  February 5, 2013 - 12:41 pm

    Judges write opinions and orders, but not “briefs”.

  58. Art Colaianni -  February 5, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    The purpose of dictionaries is understand words. Practically all words have multiple meanings. The correct definition of a word in proper context is what is needed, not forbidding the understanding of it in a dictionary. A juror not versed in law definitions could not be expected to understand them, thus could incorrectly adjudicate. Dictionaries are useful in remedying this. Someone who does not understand the purpose of dictionaries; that it requires knowing which definition fits, can do something non-sensible as the above and prevent understanding. Maybe the judge should inform the jury in such instances which law, etc. definition applies. No rote rule replaces understanding.

  59. Rick -  February 5, 2013 - 12:31 pm


  60. J Chambers -  February 5, 2013 - 12:25 pm

    For all of you nonlawyers: In the context of a criminal trial, malice does not mean what you think it means.

    The Judge in that case gave the jury detailed instructions on the legal definition of malice, which is quite different from that found in lay dictionaries. The distinction is important: although lay dictionaries can offer different definitions of a word, the law only recognizes one. Application of the same definition of malice is vital to the orderly administration of justice. Would it really be fair for one criminal to be convicted because the jury used Webster’s while another (who committed the same conduct) walks free because another jury used the OED?

    The administration of justice requires a system of law that treats all defendants equally. The court gives the jury the definition of words to ensure a level playing field. Would any of you really have it otherwise?

  61. Kathryn Simpson -  February 5, 2013 - 12:24 pm

    Unfortunately, it is sad to say that a vast majority of the population do not know the English language as well as they may surmise. Many people are not especially good spellers and/or know the correct meaning of words – and with this in mind – being told they cannot use dictionaries in the court room to verify and define words is – in my opinion – ridiculous! The court could perhaps determine that only one version is used – for jurors and Attorney’s alike, so as to end the confusion and/or controversy but to deny them altogether? What insanity!

  62. Tom -  February 5, 2013 - 12:22 pm

    A simple solution might be to provide “legally acceptable” dictionaries in every jury room.

  63. jrilett -  February 5, 2013 - 12:14 pm

    The good news is that somebody still knew how to use a dictionary. Do they allow ‘smart’ phones in the deliberation room?

  64. Brooks OVerholt -  February 5, 2013 - 11:24 am

    this is rediculous… just because they think that they can get away with things as simple as illiterate use of words. if they get a mis trial i hope and pray that they refile the charges

  65. ed -  February 5, 2013 - 10:45 am

    No they should not. What concerns me is that we’re (USA) appointing justices to the Supreme Court that need to use dictionaries to support their opinion. It’s their job to give an opinion and these guys/gals are headstrong enough to do it. If they don’t know the legal definition of a word, what are they doing on the Supreme Court. Doesn’t this body define the word in the first place for legal use?
    You can forgive the jurors using one during deliberation. However, that use is enough for a mistrial.

  66. dan -  February 5, 2013 - 9:59 am

    why do we care?

  67. Benjamin Jimenez -  February 5, 2013 - 9:55 am

    I think that general dictionaries should be allowed in court deliberation as they do in Mexico because their use enlighten the knowledge and real meaning of words helping the jurors or judges to take a better decision.

  68. petra -  February 5, 2013 - 9:54 am

    “Dan” i SO agree

  69. dan -  February 5, 2013 - 9:53 am

    why do we care ???

  70. auyr -  February 5, 2013 - 9:19 am


  71. Verdugation -  February 5, 2013 - 8:47 am

    Do you think general dictionaries should be allowed in court deliberations?
    Answer: BIG TIME NO…

  72. Evan P -  February 5, 2013 - 8:11 am

    I think that dictionaries should definately be allowed in the court room because words are not always used the same way: lawfully and normally.

  73. James Broderick -  February 5, 2013 - 8:09 am

    I applaud the initiative shown by jurors to insure a clear understanding of terms which might affect the outcome of their decision. If the legal process is to be considered at risk because of the nuances of definition between different dictionaries, I’d recommend that the judge provide an acceptable one for the use of the jury during their deliberations. Legal counsel will have to agree to the choice, of course, so as to prevent unnecessary appeals or, God forbid, a mistrial, because the volume was not accepted by all parties.

  74. Gabby -  February 5, 2013 - 7:33 am

    I think they should. Dictionaries are for everyone, and shouldn’t be “outlawed” anywhere.

  75. Everto Herrera -  February 5, 2013 - 7:30 am

    I think general dictionaries should be used all time. I have seen several dictionaries for technical or medical terms as well. People have access to general dictionaries and legal, scientific or technical terms mus be included in general diccionaries.

  76. sanusi gafar -  February 5, 2013 - 7:30 am

    i tink,it neccesary in court.

  77. Milan Korda -  February 5, 2013 - 7:12 am

    Interesting article.

    I might add.

    It has always been for the courts to tell what law is. We need to remember also the doctrine of the separation of powers. Where for example the legislatures are separated from the judiciary and the executive.
    We also need to understand that the parliament is the body that enacts laws and creates definitions in the statutes; moreover it is the legislation drafts person who is the one who types up the legislation and the intentions of the parliament.
    as we all know…most statues are not always merely creatures of the parliament as for example being created de novo without a case to back up its context or significance.

    What appears is that statues with (words) of course are generally created on the basis of legal principles and doctrines.

    We are well aware that our society and many other societies construct particular words according to the time and period they live in. Some words stay as residuals and are de normalised and deprived of their once up on a time value and social meaning…while others stay forzen and immortal.

    This may be the case with legal constructs and or legally constructed terminology and vocabulary which is what else but written up by words, adverbs , adjectives etc etc….

    Therefore in Civil cases we might extract certain words that have a different meaning than they might mean in ordinary day to day citizen interactions.
    In Criminal Law cases some words such as “very” or “very dangerous act” are not to be used eg: very … as dangerous is already enough to show the fault element as per common law jurisdictions that utilise mens rea/actus reus fault elements of the accused.

    However…words can also have extrenous effect in legal matters where exaggeration can subjectivity rather than objectify the situation thus cloud the establishment of true evidence thus fail to establish factum probandum.

    Now this is complicated stuff, good knowing of the case law is required, statutory interpretation is a must and ability to read the entire statute in its entirity and or read the case efficiently to extract who said what and what the judges reasoning is about the matter.

    It is also know In the historical case Marbury v Madison (1803) 1 Cranch 137 Marshall CJ at 180 stated that: It is the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is, Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each. Thus it is the court’s job to say what the law is and how it ought to be applied.

    Thus what i can infer form this classical case is that the Judges say what the words are and that is the way it ought to be.
    Secondary sources do not apply as they are vacuous, empty and irrelevant to the context in which they are applied.

    What in law is unreasonable may differ to a typical expression of an opinion when I or you say that somebody is unreasonable moreover when for instance in sociology, economics, psychology one is labeled as irrational … irrationality has a different impact than if used in the legal environment.

    Therefore legal constructs have a specialised meaning in its social settings within the courtroom and the jargon that constructs the identity of the body of the Judiciary versus what it would mean for an everyday person.

    Therefore to reiterate once more: a good knowledge of case law is a must, ability to interpret statutes and show the true intention of the parliament whether you use the literal or any other rule.

    And last but not least…knowledge in Constitutional Law is preferable with of course gravitation towards Legal Theory and thorough knowledge of Administrative Law principles (in common law and code jurisdictions)

    kind regards to you all and I hope my rumble (supra) makes sense…after all it is 2:15am here.


  78. john -  February 5, 2013 - 6:50 am

    Yet another “only in America” lament.

  79. ANGEL -  February 5, 2013 - 6:12 am

    I think the Jurors should have asked the Judge to clear the meaning the words that were looked up

  80. gezzzie -  February 5, 2013 - 5:38 am


  81. Charles Cade -  February 5, 2013 - 5:02 am

    This is critical. If you control the definition, you control the thought. In the balance of justice, fluid definitions move the fulcrum. It’s an un-just balance. In olden times, such were used by thieves, frauds, & assorted crooks….Doesn’t look like much has changed. A pox on them all.

  82. ishita -  February 5, 2013 - 4:23 am

    because in legal sense it might mean something else

  83. Marina -  February 5, 2013 - 3:49 am

    For criminal cases that rely on “legal terms of art” like malice, with specific legal meanings, the criminal code should be the manual consulted for clarification of a word the jurors are unfamiliar with. However, for Congressional statutes, and in the many cases where an agency is being sued for failing to abide by the intent of the law, the first canon of interpretation that justices will use to decipher what the law means is to look at the language, or text of the statute to see if the “plain meaning” is clear. If the law says something like, “no federal employees shall wear flip-flops to work,” there is no need for a legal dictionary to look up flip-flop. Either everyone knows what a flip-flop is, or if someone is arguing that what they were wearing was a sandal, the court may quote a well-known dictionary for the plain, obvious meaning of “flip-flop.”
    So, regular dictionaries in court cases that interpret statutes are not uncommon, and nor are they cause for mistrial. However, in the circumstances described in the article, the terms used are not obvious. They are specific legal terms with legal definitions, and the judge should have explained to them what those terms meant. It seems unfair to expect a group of non-lawyers to decipher complicated legal elements, especially when they know someone’s freedom is at risk.

  84. Stephanie -  February 5, 2013 - 3:07 am

    I think that a single dictionary should be decided upon for each country to use in its court systems. That way there is no misinterpretation.

  85. Andy Davis -  February 5, 2013 - 1:59 am

    In regard of the jurors misconduct. How can this possibly be? If the dictionary and thesaurus are authoritative sources such as Websters of Oxford then the jurors are simply ensuring they have a common understanding of the word upon which to make a judgement. If they had not then they might have divergent views on the commonly understood meaning of the word and thus come to divergent conclusions. Had they not used dictionaries what should they do? Should they ask the judge to define words they are unclear on? And if they do, who is to determine the judge is an authoritative source of the definition. This seems a little mad to me!

  86. Rhonda -  February 5, 2013 - 1:19 am

    I know a trial by a jury of our peers is one of our basic rights, but law has become so complicated, the average person can’t be expected to know these things. Judges need to give jurors more legal instruction to start with – such as why a general dictionary probably can’t help them in the first place. And why are judges using general dictionaries at all?

    Still, I don’t think they should throw a case out because jurors looked at a dictionary. There’s always the possibility one of the jurors can quote a dictionary to the others without looking – are they going to throw that guy off the jury because of knowledge he brought with him? On what legal basis?

  87. Kate Sanderson -  February 5, 2013 - 12:18 am

    Dictionaries should definitely not be used in cour deliberations because someone is likely to use a word in a way it is not meant to be used in court. Then everyone else will be left with the wrong ideas, or at least misled. Horrible possibilites…

  88. Megan -  February 4, 2013 - 11:49 pm

    I don’t think it is cause for a mistrial, but both sides can certainly present arguments as to how a word should be interpreted. The jurors can then decide how they want to intepret it.

  89. Amtu -  February 4, 2013 - 9:10 pm

    As soon as the law is being interpret by its content rather than its meaning, the whole legal system is set back to at least 1 A.D.

  90. Theresa -  February 4, 2013 - 7:03 pm

    Without knowing the definition of malice it’s difficult to determine whether or not the defendant on trial had malice of forethought or malice aforthought. As a court reporter student I am familiar with those terms. Another person may not have come across the meaning or concept behind malice or malicious act. If there were no dictionaries, then a juror may be left with asking another juror and that can taint their opinion or thought. It also would be very disruptive to have to stop attorney or stenographer to explain the definition. A dictionary is a simple quiet tool to use. I don’t see how that could alter the person’s mind. Each juror is responsible for returning a verdict of their own individual opinion first before consulting with foreperson.


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