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The Forensic Linguist: An Expert Witness on Doctored Confessions

Megan Bara English 101 Section 2 John Jay College of Criminal Justice


Forensic linguists has been used in criminal court cases more often over the past decade. Forensic linguistics does not have just one definition and can more easily be understood by breaking the phrase down. Forensic is defined as relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems and linguistics is defined as the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, 2003). The two words are put together and define forensic linguistics as a method of using knowledge of language and applying it to the law. Forensic linguists are used in court as expert witnesses because of their extensive knowledge of the language. Forensic linguists analyze various forms of written text such as interviews and confessions that have been presented as evidence in court by the prosecution. The linguist then uses different linguistic techniques to determine if the text was doctored. Forensic linguists do run into problems as expert witnesses because the field is not an exact science and is only really backed by their linguistic insights. Research Question The area of forensic linguistics that my research focuses on is discourse analysis, which is the analysis of written language. My research question is, how do forensic linguists use discourse analysis to testify as an expert witnesses in cases where there is a dispute over whether an interview or confession had been doctored by police. This question interests me because as a police officer I am often called into court to testify on behalf of the prosecution, and I may have to face a forensic linguist as an expert witness sometime in my career. I know that the best way


to avoid the mistakes that were made in many of the cases that used forensic linguists to overturn a conviction is to know what mistakes the police made before I make them myself. The Cases I conducted my research by reading several articles by well-known authors in the field of linguistics and in the cases they used linguistic techniques to determine if the statement or confession had been doctored. In each one of the cases a linguist was used as an expert witness in an appeal where the conviction was overturned because of mistakes in the documentation of interviews, the uncovering of underlying dialogue in confessions, uncommon repetition, and problems with uniqueness of expression. All of the cases were from before most courts required video and audio recording of confessions and statements. Problems with doctored confessions are less likely now than they were in the past because of the technology available today. The following cases are the ones that I will refer to when talking about the linguistic techniques used by the linguist. Birmingham Six. The first is the 1974 case of the Birmingham six where 6 Irishmen were arrested after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) blew up two pubs. The 6 men were convicted and sentenced to prison. Coulthard (1994) analyzed the police evidence of William Powers confession, police interviews, and court documentation because William Powers claimed he had not made the confessions and that the police fabricated them. Coulthards report and findings of linguistic evidence was used in their appeal and the Birmingham Six were released from prison. The linguistic features that Coulthard examined are over-specificity, terms of address, and repetition. The Evans Statements. The second case is the 1950 case of the uneducated and

illiterate Timothy Evans who was accused of murdering his wife and daughter. According to


Svartviks (1968) report, Timothy Evans stated at trial that only one of the four statements he had given was the truth and that the police had doctored the two containing his confession. Timothy Evans was convicted and sentenced to hanging. Timothy Evans was hung and was given a posthumous pardon 16 years after his death. Jan Svartvik analyzed and reported on the four statements given by Timothy Evans. Svartvik did not analyze the texts to come to a legal conclusion, but to do a study in linguistics. Svartvik found two of the statements that contained Timothy Evans confession were fabricated because it featured language that was not expected from an uneducated illiterate. The linguistic features Svartvik examined were idiolect,

repetition, over specificity, and the complexity of the sentences. Bridgewater Four. The third case is the 1979 case where four men referred to as the Bridgewater Four were convicted of killing a 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy. Coulthard (2004) examined the recorded and documented confession of the one man named Patrick Molloy. Patrick Molloy retracted his confession at trial and admitted to making the statements, but he claimed that he was being told what to say by a police officer. Coulthards findings led to the four mens convictions being overturned because the trial was found to be unfair because the evidence showed to have been fabricated by police. Again repetition, uniqueness of expression, and underlying dialogue were found in Coulthards analysis. Craig and Bentley. The fourth case is the 1952 case of Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig. Derek Bentley was 16 years old when he was convicted and sentenced to hanging for the murder of a police officer. Derek Bentleys friend Christopher Craig shot a police officer in the head during their burglary attempt but police records of a confession made by Bentley showed evidence that Bentley knew that Craig had a gun and made comments to incite him to shoot the officer. The prosecution entered the confession into evidence saying that it was a verbatim


dictated monologue made by Derek Bentley. In Derek Bentleys posthumous defense, Coulthard (2002) examined the confession made by Bentley and found that it had been doctored by the involved police officers and Bentley was granted a posthumous pardon and his manslaughter conviction was overturned. DISCOURSE ANALYSIS Speech Patterns Lexico-grammatical refers to the vocabulary and grammar that make up an utterance. Every person fluent in a language has his or her own distinct idiolect, which is built over the years. Idiolect is speech patterns, which are unique to a certain person. Coulthard (2006) states, This [idiolect] implies that it should be possible to devise a method of linguistic fingerprinting in other words that the linguistic impressions create a given speaker/writer should be usable (p. 1). A persons idiolect makes statements and utterances made by them, their own because everyone speaks differently depending on the depth of their vocabulary and education. In every

case that I looked at the authors found evidence of underlying dialogue in the statements confessions because of idiolect. In the Evans statements Svartvik (1968) found language that wasnt consistent with someone that is illiterate. An example is in the third and fourth

statements made to police. It was recorded that Evans stated the 12:55 am train where the first and second statements made by Evans said the five to one train both, which were referring to the same train (p. 20). Evans saying the 12:55 am train is awkward and too complex for him because he is uneducated. In the first two statements made by Evans, it shows how he speaks and the different words he uses when referring to something that he is very familiar with. Evans said in the first two statements, about half past six in the evening where in the third and fourth statements he referred to the time 8 a.m. or 2 p.m. (p. 20). Another idiolect marker Svartvik


found that was consistent with an illiterate person was the use of double negatives which were found numerous times in the statements Evans admitted were true and not found at all in the disputed statements (p. 20). IDIOLECT In the case of the Birmingham Six, Coulthard (1994) found that in Powers confession that he referred to his friends with what he would normally call them, but in the documented statement he refers to his friends by either first name or by first and last name and on 19 occurrences by just last name (p. 419-420). Coulthard (1994) states, Speakers do not change the habits of a lifetime on a single occasion (p. 420), referring to how in just the statements that were supposed to be in Powers own words his friends were called by last name only, which is common to police register and implies that there was police editing in the statement. Another linguistic feature that was found in a few of the cases was finding underlying dialogue in documented statements. Monologues are supposed to be verbatim statements in a persons own words without prompt, such as asking a specific question to get a desired answer. The documents that were presented at trial were believed to be true because police officers were sworn under oath that the confessions had been collected accurately without dialogue. The Bentley confession was presented, as a monologue but showed evidence that it was partially a dialogue that was made into a monologue. Coulthard (2006) explains that in the last four sentences of the statement (p. 2): I knew we were going to break into the place. I did not know what we were going to get just anything that was going. I did not have a gun and I did not know Chris had one until he shot. I now know that the policeman in uniform that was shot dead.


These four statements made together dont have cohesion and as a paragraph they do not come together to make a clear idea, which indicates that they are the result of clarifactory questions. Clarifactory questions are questions used to prompt a specific answer. The way the sentences come together they are missing parts that give the sentence meaning, as if they were the answers to several questions and made into a paragraph. Coulthard (2006) also looked at the Molloy statements where Molloy admitted that he did say the words in the confession, but that he was being told what to say by a police officer. In this case the linguist analyzed both the documented interview between Molloy and the police and Molloys confession, which was documented by police. The documented interview showed evidence that the interview was fabricated and it came from Molloys confession (p. 12). Coulthard (2002) found problems with cohesion in the interview and stated that in essence what we have again is the policeman as dramatist constructed a dialogue from a monologue. The questions were found to have been created for the statements that were given in the confession. Another case mentioned by Coulthard (2002) that was not mentioned above was in 1985 when Ashley King was accused and convicted of beating an old lady to death (p. 22). Police presented 10 typed interviews with King. King admitted to have visited the woman the day that she died and also admitted to have hit her on her head and later withdrew his confession. The police typed interviews, which were supposed to have been in a dialogue form, did not match up with the handwritten notes of trigger words of the officers. Trigger notes are small phrases that outline how the interview will flow. This showed how different the evidence that was presented was from the actual notes taken during the interview and shows that the notes were created after the interview actually took place (p. 23).


Over specificity and uncommon repetition was found in both the Powers confession statements and the Evans confession statements. Words were put together that would not

normally be found paired and were repeated over and over in the documented statement. Coulthard (1994) found repetition in the Powers statement and states, It is a common misconception that people can remember verbatim what they and others have said. Every day we hear people report conversations in direct speech: and then I said and then she said (p. 420). Most people remember only bits and pieces of what was said, and in both the statement and interview presented as evidence in the Powers trial had exact phrasing from each other which leads one to believe that one was based off of the other. Couthard also found over specificity and repetition in Powers statement where he said white plastic carrier bags (p. 418). Coulthard stated, it was the police officers who were interested in the detailed

description of the bags and that it was they who put these details into the statement (p. 419). This does not show to be a normal persons way of talking and also appears to be more police register. When an average person refers to something they refer to it the simplest way, as they would normally call something. It was important for the police taking the statements that the bag were described because it would give evidence that the bags found were indeed the bags that Powers was talking about. In the Evans statement Svartvik (1968) also found repetition in disputed statement that contained the confession. Svartvik gave the following example (p. 23): I was doing quite a lot of overtime for the firm working late, which I used to earn altogether $6 to $7 a week. Out of that my wife used to go to the firm on a Friday and my Guvnor used to pay her $5 what she used to sign for. Perhaps through the week I


would have to give her more money off different people from which I used to borrow it. I used to pay them back on a Friday out of my own pocket. Svarvik stated, characteristic of spoken rather than written language, for example, repetition of lexical items, such as the series of used to (p. 24) there were no other instances of this type of repetition found in any of Evans other statements. CONCLUSION After looking over all of the journal articles and book titles, I can see a lot of areas that mistakes were made by police doctoring statements that caused convictions to be overturned. In some of the cases it is not clear if the person was guilty or not but because they did not receive a fair trial, their convictions were overturned and they were released from jail. Some were not so lucky and the wrongful convictions caused them their life before they were able to gather enough evidence in their defense for their appeal. Now that technology is better, more courts are requiring that important interviews and confessions be video recorded to not only protect the accused from doctored statements, but to also assist the prosecution in proving that there was not tampering with the accused confessions and statements. Case by case forensic linguists are proving that they do have a role in the criminal courtroom as an expert witness when the there is a question of whether a statement had been doctored. I have given examples and evidence found in the reports of cases given by linguists that showed the different techniques that they used to support their expert insights when analyzing written text of doctored statements and confessions.

AN EXPERT WITNESS ON DOCTORED CONFESSIONS References Coulthard, R.M. (1994). Powerful evidence for the defense: An exercise in forensic discourse analysis. In J. Gibbons (Eds.), Language and the law. London: Longman. Coulthard, R M (2002). Whose voice is it? Invented and concealed dialogue in written records of verbal evidence produced by the police. In J. Cotterill (Eds.), Language in the legal process (pp. 19-34). UK: Palgrave Macmillian. Coulthard, R.M. (2004). Author identification, idiolect, and linguistic uniqueness. Applied Linguistics, 25(4), 431-447. Coulthard, R.M. (2005). The linguist as expert witness. Linguistics & the Human Sciences, 1(1), 39-58. Coulthard, M. (2006) ...and then... Language description and author attribution. Found at: <http://www.aston.ac.uk/lss/staff/coulthardm.jsp> 11th November 2011


Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). (2003). Springfield, MA: Merriam- Webster. Svartvik, J. (1968). The Evans statements: A case for forensic linguistics. Goteborg: University of Gothenburg Press.