When is a “Victim” not a Victim?
Legal jargon that actually matters
There’s a body on the floor with a meat cleaver sticking out of its head, blood pooling on the floor and limbs strewn in awkward final positions.
It’s fair to assume something has gone “awry.”
There are bloodied footsteps around the body, clear prints on the cleaver. There’s also a note saying: “I told you he’d be dead meat…” pinned to the body.
It’s fair to assume the something…was probably not an accident.
So, we have a victim, yes?A murder?
No — not necessarily. Because the one thing I have neglected to mention so far is that the body is that of pig. A pig with a meat cleaver in it is a dead pig. A butchered pig. There might be a case of animal cruelty, but there is no case for “murder”. Murder (homicide) can only be committed on a human being.
I’m not mocking the system, I am merely giving an example as how the use of language really matters in law. Had the above body been a human then, indeed, it would be treated as a homicide, and there would be action to seek out the person(s) responsible for committing that crime against the victim.
And we can use the word “victim” because we know there has been an offence, or a crime, against a victim — the one who has evidently suffered from the crime.
When is a “Victim” not a “victim”?
When they are a “claimant”. Take, for example, someone claiming that they have been the victim of the most awful harassment. Let’s say a man goes to the police and says he has been sexually assaulted by a woman on numerous occasions and wishes to make a formal complaint. He gives a statement with full details about how she began with slaps on his backside, then escalated to groping him and touching his genitals through his clothing, despite him telling her not to. Finally, the last incident had been when they had been at a company party, where they both work — she is his manager — and they had both been drinking. She took him into a side room, and proceeded to try and undress him and perform sexual acts on him.
This alleged offences all happen on the Friday night prior to the Monday morning when the man went into the Police station because he couldn’t face going into work. When asked why he didn’t go in straight away, after the assault, he told them he was terrified of losing his job, his wife and family, and above all — that no-one would believe him.
However, having had at least two showers since the event, there was no DNA evidence that could be collected. He’d taken the clothes off and in fear of his wife discovering them with perfume on, and making the wrong assumption — and adding to the fact that they just felt dirty — he had washed them.
Now we have a situation where a man has claimed to be a victim of a crime, but there is not yet proof that a crime has been committed. There is no meat-cleaver (good lord, what a thought: sorry, gents reading this), and as yet the CCTV has not been collected. Or what has been collected is not from the location of the assault on the Friday night.
So the person he has accused of a crime will be approached by the police for questioning. She may or may not be arrested. Usually, in the initially phase, she would be invited in for questioning under caution. She might not be able to be arrested because…
…the police have yet to ascertain if there has even been a crime.
And so on…and so forth. But that is what makes him a “claimant” and not a “victim” — a point of language that might seem petty, but in fact it underpins the very basis of “innocent until proven guilty.”
This is only one, very simple, unqualified example of the use of the term. It is no difference from the claimant seeking charges for vandalism. Their window was broken by a ball. Well, indeed it was broken, and it appears the ball broke it. But until it is established that it was broken deliberately, as an act of crime, they cannot be called a “victim” of a “crime”. It might have been an accident: no blame. So, they are a “claimant” not a “victim”.
“Accusation” or “Allegation”
This is another quite simple distinction, and one people often get wrong as they throw the words around as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.
Using my examples above, the key difference is evidence of a crime having been committed. With the dead person who has a meat cleaver in their head, we might find our suspect, the person we believe to be the perpetrator of the crime that we know to have happened: we accuse that suspect of that crime.
In t he example of the man reporting sexual assault, we would allege that the name woman had assaulted him. It is an allegation because as yet the incident itself, the crime itself, has yet to be established.
There is some interplay with the words. I can accuse little Jimmy from next door of throwing his ball deliberately at the old hag’s window because I have a broken window, the object that broke it, and a person who I can accuse of a crime when I am satisfied that it had been an act of wanton vandalism.
But if, like the case of the sexually assaulted man, I talk about that case, I have to say “an allegation” has been made. If I then get firm evidence indicating that the incident did in fact occur as the man said, only then can I remark that I have a key suspect who has been “accused” of the crime.
When it comes to the exact legal definition it is a due process thing. The “allegation” is the complaint that is made: the “accusation” is the formal charge made against the suspect. Therefore, at the start of a murder trial, several “allegations” might be made in the process of trying to find the right suspect. When the police believe they have them, the formal “accusation” — the charge itself, is made.
Anyway, have some fun with the words. Look them up. See if they differ in UK and US law.