The Cultural Defense as Courtroom Drama: The Enactment of Identity, Sameness, and Difference in Criminal Trial Discourse


Sigurd D'hondt obtained a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Antwerp in 2001 and is currently a Guest Professor at the Department of African Languages and Cultures at Ghent University. His research interests include the analysis of face-to-face interaction, interaction in judicial contexts, Kiswahili and East-African popular culture, political discourse, and social theory. Research for this article was sponsored by the Belgian Federal Justice Department and carried out in collaboration with the Belgian Human Rights League. Earlier versions were presented at an IPrA-Forum (University of Antwerp, Belgium, April 20, 2008), at the International Workshop Law in Action (ISP Cachan, Paris, July 2, 2009), and at the 2009 International Association of Forensic Linguistics Conference (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, July 8, 2009). The author can be reached at


This article traces cultural defense as a discursive realization-in-context, rather than as a legal-doctrinal figure, in a Belgian real-life criminal trial. In examining the defense plea for a Turkish man accused of battery, three discursive techniques are identified for making Cultural Otherness visible: de-individualization, reporting preparatory meetings with the client, and supplying ethnographic “expert” knowledge that transforms the client into the “object” of discourse. Apart from providing information about the defendant's background, cultural defenses also involve particular modes of behaviorally orienting toward the defendant in the courtroom. Otherness must be enacted in court, and to this end attorneys often actively disaffiliate themselves from their clients, marking them as impenetrable, mute, and unemancipated. In doing so, they draw extensively upon the indexical and iconic modalities of talk, which is convenient because the matrix of sameness and difference on which the cultural defense is founded escapes formal legal definition.