Using forensic linguistics in the criminal justice system

As you know, the Crimepsych blog is on something of a hiatus until later this year. To keep you going, I’m delighted to bring you a guest post from John Olsson of the Forensic Linguistics Institute. John is one of the UK’s most experienced forensic linguists, with over 300 criminal cases in his portfolio. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions about how forensic linguistics contributes to solving crimes. You can find out more about John and his work over at his comprehensive website.

Tell us about some of your cases

I mostly get asked to give an opinion on the authorship of a text, which can be a book, a set of mobile phone texts, letters, emails and so on. I also do plagiarism analysis. For example, about four years ago I was approached by Lew Perdue, the novelist, who claimed that his book had been plagiarised by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. This was a very big case and it went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Most of my work is criminal work. I did the authorship analysis in the case of Garry Weddell, the police inspector accused of murdering his wife. He was released on bail and later shot his mother in law and then himself. I also did the linguistics in the case of Julie Turner, the woman whose body was found in an oil barrel in Yorkshire.

What other kinds of cases do you get involved in?

I often get asked by coroners to look at suicide notes, or other texts surrounding incidents of suspicious death. I also do a lot of hate mail work and I’ve done quite a number of product contamination cases. I also do a lot of insurance and other security work in fraud and forgery cases. Mobile phone text authorship is also a key area in forensic linguistics.

How would you describe ‘Forensic Linguistics’?

There are two parts to forensic linguistics: language as evidence and the language of the law. Language as evidence involves the linguist being asked to give an expert opinion on the authorship, or possibly meaning, of a text. This involves making an analysis, writing a report and going to court to give evidence.

How do you find the experience of giving evidence in court?

I enjoy it and I also believe it’s right that we should be made to defend our views. Lawyers should not hesitate to be as probing as possible when it comes to experts.

When was forensic linguistics first used?

Forensic linguistics was first used in an analysis of a suspect statement in 1968 by a Swedish linguist by the name of Jan Svartvik. However, it did not make its first appearance in court in any serious way until the 1990’s.

How long have you been practising as a forensic linguist?

I have been practising since about 1995, working with police forces all over the UK and the US, and with lawyers in the UK and abroad. I have prepared over 300 reports for court and have given evidence many times, mostly for prosecution.

Do you think forensic linguistics has been beneficial for the justice system?

I believe forensic linguistics has had a major impact on the justice system in that it has helped courts to clarify the linguistic evidence either in favour of or against suspects.

How should police officers and lawyers brief forensic linguists?

It’s important that lawyers and police officers brief experts carefully. In a few cases people have ‘overbriefed’ experts, giving them information which is not only unnecessary, but which the expert should not know. Another important factor is when to approach the expert. I suggest the earlier the better – even if it is just to get an opinion on the viability of a particular piece of evidence.

How can Forensic Linguistics be used in a criminal investigation?

To identify the author of a text, such as a ransom demand or suicide note, or series of hate mail letters, mobile phone texts or emails. To clarify the meaning of a word or phrase. For example, in one case I was asked the meaning of a slang word in a murder trial and to evaluate the word in context and assess its meaning within the scope of the crime that had been committed.

What should investigators, solicitors or private clients consider when requesting help from Forensic Linguists?

The primary issue is whether the expert is appropriate for the task. Even forensic linguistics is becoming more and more specialised. Most linguists will be happy to tell the client if there is someone else who is better qualified or more current in the particular area under examination.

How long does a Forensic Linguist need to analyse a piece of evidence?

It very much depends on the evidence. In cases where there are many texts (whether emails, letters, mobile phone texts, etc) it can take several months. However, where there are only a few texts to analyse, the work can be completed within a week or ten days. Most linguists will give a preliminary opinion at little or no cost.

Is the science behind it robust enough to use in a trial as evidence?

Forensic Linguistics has been used successfully in courts many times, both in the UK and abroad. I believe linguistic evidence stands up as well as any other kind of forensic evidence in court. Behind every case is a considerable body of research: we base our conclusions on linguistic principles, on evidence from language databases, on previous experience and findings. In fact, just like any other forensic scientist, we use all the tools available to us.

What difficulties have you come across when analysing a piece of evidence?

All evidence is difficult to analyse: you can never underestimate the task. Perhaps the most difficult task is estimating the contribution of a particular piece of evidence to the overall case. Does it tend to support an identification of a suspect? Does it tend to support the identification of someone other than the suspect? It is important not to overstate an opinion or cause problems for courts by being over-confident. All forensic scientists have these issues.

Where do you see the future of Forensic Linguistics?

The only future that matters is that the justice system is well served and that investigators and lawyers are given useful, honest, impartial advice and evidence. I believe forensic linguistics can do this, and so will remain a good servant of the justice system. It is the integrity of the justice system that counts – nothing else matters.

Find out more:

Two books by John Olsson:

8 thoughts on “Using forensic linguistics in the criminal justice system”

  1. I do not have much idea about Forensic Linguistics but after reading this blog it looks pretty interesting and difficult. Analysing evidence is a tough job and when you know that people’s lives can be destroyed by one mistake you get worried.
    Just stumbled and submitted your site to Viralogy. Hope you get some great traffic from it. Your blog is here

    – Josh

  2. Hi,

    I have recently graduated from the University of York with a 2:1 in English Language and Linguistic Science. I am very passionate in this area of expertise and would like to become a forensic linguist and would like some advise about how I can use these skills in the workplace.

    Jenna Down

  3. I am amazed that linguistics is considered as a part of forensic sciences, and more so that it is used to deal with real life criminal cases.

    I go with Alan E. Even I am interested in understanding how forensic linguistics is validated, i.e., one of the tougher/straighter questions I have is – how do you know that a text has been written by a specific person.

    There is a definite need to understand the research grounding on which this stands, before we can learn anything practical.

    Correct me in case I am wrong.

  4. I will love to know more about forensic linguistics. It is a topic that has just being introduce to us in my department and i really love to know more about it ‘cos i find it interesting.

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