Barb's Blog

Deaf? Justice Denied

All of us want to feel safe in our homes and towns, in our streets and in our communities.   

Recently a young deaf man in Ohio was sentenced to life in prison.  Jerron Johnson was convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, and rape in the death of one woman and convicted of rape and attempted rape of two others.  Terrible crimes, no matter how you look at it.  Crimes no civilized society can accept.  Our hearts go out to the victims of these assaults and their loved ones.  And anyone who does something like that must deserve what he gets, right?

According to The Akron Beacon Journal, Jerron lost his hearing when he was 15 months old as a result of an untreated ear infection.  

In kindergarten, Jerron Johnson didn't know his ABCs or how to count to 10. His hearing aids were constantly missing or broken, his family was practically indifferent, his attorneys said.

By middle school, 99.9 percent of Akron students were smarter and he missed more classes than he attended.

At age 15, unable to read, write, sign or speak, and his single mother in prison, Johnson served as a ''mule,'' running drugs for others.

After his 16th birthday, he was charged with raping three women and killing one.

Prior to his conviction, the state of Ohio held Jerron in custody for more than seven years, teaching him sign language so that he could understand the charges against him. 

The irony is devastating.  If the Ohio education system had spent seven years teaching Jerron sign language when he was young, the trajectory of his life – and the lives of three innocent women – might have been vastly different.

Two questions must be asked:  

Can a neglected, languageless child develop the same moral compass that others possess?

Is seven years of adult sign language learning sufficient to compensate for 17 years of language deprivation?

I once received a phone call from a judge looking for a therapeutic placement for a deaf teenage sex offender.  The boy had severe language deficits.  The judge was sympathetic.  “I’m not even sure he knows what he did was wrong,” he said.

Studies in early identification of deafness show that the children who have the highest measures in language – that is, those who perform at “low average” as compared to hearing children (not so high after all, eh?) - are the children who were identified early and received appropriate early intervention services from providers specializing in deaf and hard of hearing children.  Other studies show that parental involvement plays a key role in language learning.  When it comes to related areas of brain development, by age five most hearing children have developed a theory of mind – that is, an ability to experience the perspective of someone else.  Deaf children who have late exposure to language demonstrate deficits in theory of mind.

Science also indicates there is a critical period for language learning, and that is thought to end at around puberty, although research also indicates that deaf children that do not have language exposure before age six months may experience significant gaps.  The critical period applies to the learning of both  sign language and spoken language.  Research shows that “individuals who are born deaf and isolated from language during early childhood grow up “linguistically dysfunctional.”

So, is a “linguistically dysfunctional” individual capable of knowing right from wrong?  Of understanding his legal rights?  The Miranda warning?  Right to counsel?  Right against self-incrimination?  Pleading rights?  Does the average hearing Joe understand these rights?  

Jerron is not alone in being at a disadvantage in understanding his rights or in being hampered while going through the criminal justice system.  According to one study of deaf state prison inmates, based on their language abilities and reading scores, “up to 50 percent  . . . may not have received due process throughout their arrest and adjudication.”

It appears that one individual who did not receive due process was Stephen Brodie, wrongly imprisoned for 17 years for the rape of a child that he did not commit.  Originally arrested for stealing quarters from a vending machine at a community swimming pool, police began asking about the unsolved rape of the five year old girl a year earlier.  Police questioned him for hours without an interpreter.  He eventually confessed, even though he did not commit the crime, and later told The Associated Press he did so because he felt scared and pressured.  The case was reopened after his father wrote a letter to the district attorney, who started a unit in his office dedicated to re-examining possible innocence cases.  Originally sentenced to five years for the rape, Brodie’s sentence was extended twice because he did not register as a sex offender.  Given the lack of communication access regarding his rights, one wonders whether his lack of registration was purposeful or due to a lack of information. 

In an unrelated case, a deaf parolee reported “They put a metal bracelet on my leg, but I did not know what it was for.  I took my brothers’ truck and went out driving and the police came and arrested me.  So I had to go back to prison” (Miller, 2003, quoted in Vernon, 2010).  Back to jail because the terms of his parole were not effectively communicated to him.  Seems that this is not unusual.  

Prison is a pretty tough place to be.  “Sadistic, malicious violence is pervasive in this setting, and the number one fear of inmates is that they will be raped murdered, or both.”  As if that is not enough, deaf inmates face basic communication barriers.  Most communication in prison, such as orders and calls for meal time and the count, are given through spoken language or other auditory signals.  If prisoners do not respond quickly they are disciplined and punished.  In addition, “States frequently violate the constitutional rights of prisoners with . . . hearing disabilities” through failure to provide sign language interpretation, including for disciplinary proceedings, educational programs and essential communications with physicians.  The failure to provide effective communication to inmates dramatically increases their chances to receive unwarranted punishment, limits their opportunities to shorten or mitigate their sentence, and interferes with their ability to obtain medical care.  

There you have it - deaf people are less likely to receive due process and more likely to be punished more severely than hearing offenders for their crime.

Such is the tragic story of deaf people who are suspects and offenders. 

Copyright 2010.  Do not reproduce without permission.


ADAPT et al.  (2005).  Amicus brief in United States v. State of Georgia.  Supreme Court of the United States.

Associated Press.  (2010).  Deaf Texas inmate imprisoned for child sex assault is exonerated.  September 27 2010. 

Astington, J.W. & Edward, M.J. (2010).  The Development of Theory of Mind in Early Childhood.  Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. 

Mahoney, N.  (n/d).  Language and linguistics:  A special report.  National Science Foundation .

Mayberry, R. (1998).  The critical period for language acquisition and the deaf child’s language comprehension:  A psycholinguistic approach.  Bulletin d'Audiophonologie: Annales Scientifiques de L'Université de Franche-Comté, 15, 349-358. 

Miller, K. (2004).  Linguistic diversity in a deaf prison population:  Implications for due process.  J. Deaf Stud. Deaf Educ. (9)1, 112-119. 

Moeller, M.P. (2000).  Early intervention and language development in children who are deaf and hard of hearing.  Pediatrics 106; e43.  

Schick, B., de Villiers, P., de Villiers, J., & Hoffmeister, R.  (2007).  Language and theory of mind: A study of deaf children.  Child Development, 78(2) 376-396. 

Trexler, P. (2010).  Deaf killer sentenced to life in prison.  The Akron Beacon Journal.  September 3, 2010. 

Vernon, McC.  (2010).  The horror of being deaf and in prison.   American Annals of the Deaf, 155(3), 311-321.

Vernon, McC. & Miller, K,  (2005).  Obstacles faced by deaf people in the criminal justice system.  American Annals of the Deaf, 150(3), 283-291.

 Yoshinaga-Itano, C., Sedey, A. L., Coulter, D. K., & Mehl, A. L. (1998).  Language of early- and later-identified children with hearing loss.  Pediatrics, 102(5), 1161-1171

© Barbara Raimondo 2015