Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The sixty-eight inch cardboard cutout is a courtroom prop used by Jordan Johnson’s defense attorney, David Paoli. It is a symbol of the theater of American criminal defense. Sixty-eight inches is the height of Cecilia Washburn, the woman Jordan Johnson raped. Paoli uses the cutout during his closing statements in Johnson’s trial in an effort to demonstrate that Johnson could not have held down Washburn by the arms while he was penetrating her from behind on the night he raped her. The cutout is flat and Washburn’s full standing height, but both Johnson and Washburn testify that, when Johnson penetrated Washburn from behind, her knees were bent. Paoli’s use of the prop is absurd. It cannot possibly prove his point. Criminal defense attorneys are encouraged and expected to perform on behalf of their clients, to offer a barrage of arguments even when those arguments are not true. Paoli’s crude, needless re-enactment of Cecilia Washburn’s rape in front of Washburn on the courtroom floor shows how the theater of criminal defense can be remarkably insensitive to rape victims.
The Dear Colleague Letter was a letter the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent to colleges in April of 2011. The letter is a symbol of the possibility of positive change to rape culture on college campuses. It reminded colleges of their obligations under Title IX, a piece of legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in U.S. higher education. Colleges have a sworn duty to protect their female students from the dangers of rape on campus. The Dear Colleague Letter also standardized the burden of proof required to find an alleged rapist guilty of rape on campus. According to the letter, colleges should use a “preponderance of evidence” to determine guilt. A “preponderance of evidence” means that it is “more likely than not” that a given crime was committed. This lowered the burden of proof at many higher education institutions, including the University of Montana. It is also a sign that colleges are not alone in changing the culture of rape on their campuses. It indicates the possibility of positive change.
The dais is the raised platform in the courtroom from which lawyers deliver their speeches. David Paoli and Kristen Pabst, members of Jordan Johnson’s defense team, and members of the state’s prosecution all make their closing arguments from the dais. The dais is a symbol of voice and argument. It represents, on the one hand, a victim’s right to be heard, though the theatrical and untrue arguments delivered by Johnson’s defense ultimately win the day at court. Few rape victims are able to have their voices heard in court in the first place. And, even when they are given a platform from which to speak, the voices of rape victims are often ignored within the American legal system. The dais can also be seen as a symbol of the unequal attention paid to the voices of accused rapists over the voices of their victims.