Writers of a Subject Should Know the Lingo

The 20th anniversary of everything 1995 Simpson murder trial is popping up all over the place these days. Today’s anniversary was the prosecution’s opening statements, only you wouldn’t know that if you read some of today’s commemorative articles — or blog posts.

Here’s the first sentence of one on the Santa Monica Daily News Press website.

“Twenty years ago, the opening arguments in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson were given to the jury.”

While, of course, not everyone knows the difference between opening statements and closing arguments, but someone who writes about such things for a news organization, no matter how small or obscure, should.

So court lingo 101, folks:  A trial begins with jury selection. Next, the attorneys in the case, with the prosecutor going first, tell the jury the facts of the case and how they plan to prove that the defendant(s) is guilty or not guilty, depending on which side they represent. That process is called opening statements. Here”s the U.S. Court’s more detailed explanation:

“The opening statement at the beginning of the trial is limited to outlining facts. This is each party’s opportunity to set the basic scene for the jurors, introduce them to the core dispute(s) in the case, and provide a general road map of how the trial is expected to unfold. Absent strategic reasons not to do so, parties should lay out for the jurors who their witnesses are, how they are related to the parties and to each other, and what each is expected to say on the witness stand. Opening statements include such phrases as, ‘Ms. Smith will testify under oath that she saw Mr. Johnson do X,’ and ‘The evidence will show that Defendant did not do Y.’”

After the prosecutor and defense attorney complete their opening statements, both sides present their evidence. After the evidence phase of the trial, both sides present their closing arguments. Again, here’s the U.S. Court’s explanation:

“Only after the jury has seen and heard the factual evidence of the case are the parties allowed to try to persuade them about its overall significance. Closing arguments are the opportunity for each party to remind jurors about key evidence presented and to persuade them to adopt an interpretation favorable to their position. At this point, parties are free to use hypothetical analogies to make their points; to comment on the credibility of the witnesses, to discuss how they believe the various pieces of the puzzle fit into a compelling whole, and to advocate why jurors should decide the case in their favor.”

“The key difference”, the U.S. Court’s website goes on to explain, is:  “In opening statements, parties are restricted to stating the evidence: (“Witness A will testify that Event X occurred”). In closing arguments, the parties are free to argue the merits: ‘As we know from Witness A’s compelling testimony, Event X occurred, which clearly established who should be held responsible in this case.’”

The blogger who posted on the Santa Monica Daily Press website certainly isn’t the first or the only one in the media to mistakenly refer to opening statements to opening “arguments.” I’ve heard well-known and veteran journalists with large news organizations do it, too. That sets my teeth on edge.

More memorable than opening statements in the Simpson trial 20 years ago, though, was a camera snafu. I wrote a haiku about that the next day, and will post that on this blog tomorrow.

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