An Initial Problem about Initials

A lawyer wrote me yesterday with an interesting question. The lawyer is writing a Brief of Appellant where the client was convicted of child molestation. The lawyer’s question was whether it was proper to use the victim’s name in the Brief. Are there any rules or traditions that govern the use of the victim’s name?

Of course, how you label or name people is an important strategic consideration no matter what the age of your prosecuting witness. It is also a strategic consideration when you are referencing the judge in the lower court, the prosecutor, witnesses and other components of your appellate cast of characters. The government thinks about this stuff, also. It’s why your client is called “the defendant” before the lower court and the “appellant” in the Court of Appeals. It’s why you call the person that the State calls “the victim” the “complaining witness” or the “prosecuting witness.”

Most of the time, the trial court is the “court below.” A few years ago, the judge in “the court below” had been removed from office by the JQC, the agency that governs judicial ethics. The whole matter became a public spectacle. By the time that case reached the appellate courts, the lower court was changed to the judge’s name, a name I used throughout the brief. Sometimes, my opponent is the “appellee,” sometimes my opponent is “the State” or “the Government.” Recently, in a case where a DA had met a similar fate to the judge in the JQC matter, the State had a name, too.

When it comes to minors, it’s generally best to be classy and respectful. My default is to use initials. Although how you reference the minor is really a matter of preference as long as the name of the witness is listed in the indictment and is referenced in the transcript. The cat is already out of the bag, so to speak. If the complaining witness is a very young child, and the issue is that she was victimized by folks who influenced her memory and testimony for their own ends, then initials are the way to go. In that instance, perhaps the word “victim” is okay, too. She was victimized by those who twisted her words or memory to lie about  your client. If the complaining witness is older, perhaps a teen, and your defense is that she has fabricated a story for some selfish reason, then perhaps it would be okay to use the name. If you want to emphasize maturity and sophistication, then Ms. Jones or Ms. Smith is the way to go. A “Ms.” sounds older than a first name, after all, and much older than a Miss. But even then, I’d use the same sparingly and for those witnesses with the most serious of palpable credibility problems.

There’s no real rule here. What do you do in these situations? Would love to see some comments in this regard.

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