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date: 27 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Sometimes ordinary people just do not understand the meaning of the language that they hear in courtrooms. This is problematic because courts are places of great power: a person's liberty can be restricted, or their life taken or property lost. Legal discourse is largely based on written texts that are invisible to laypeople in contact with the legal community. In a trial, however, a layperson's discourse becomes prominent. For the attorneys, the structure of the prototypical legal event – the trial – is second nature. Yet trials' language and procedures are opaque to ordinary people. Because the language itself can be difficult, the operation of power can be masked. The need for laypeople to understand the language in trials is a part of the legitimacy of law in the United States. This article reviews research focused on US courtrooms and how discourse operates in that particular setting. It examines trial chronology: pleas and pleadings; jury selection or voir dire; opening statement; questioning and narrative in the evidence portion; and closing arguments.

Keywords: legal discourse, courtrooms, United States, trials, language, pleas, pleadings, voir dire, closing arguments, opening statement

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