Forensic linguists play part in 20-year-old murder case

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Magnifying glass on an old handwritten letter / 123RF

What exactly is — or are — “forensic linguistics”? It’s the application of linguistic knowledge, methods and insights to the forensic context of law, language, crime investigation, trial, and judicial procedure. Here’s an example of it.

Retired FBI agent James Fitzgerald is one of the U.S.’s most prominent forensic linguists: as well as advising on some of TV’s popular fictional crime and forensics shows, he was on the investigative teams of two high-profile criminal cases of the last couple of decades: the Unabomber, and the murder of JonBenét Ramsey in 1996. The Ramsey case was recently back in the news, with a new TV documentary detailing a new, independent investigation of that 20-year-old crime. As part of the new investigative team, Fitzgerald returned to the scene of the crime to analyze in detail the notorious ransom note that became such a mysterious and vital part of the unsolved homicide. He talked to Yahoo TV about the significance of that 370-word document, and the various things it revealed about the person who wrote it. Here are a couple of excerpts from that interview:

YT: When you were investigating the ransom note, what things struck you as unusual or interesting about it?
JF: The first thing was the very first two words, which said: “Listen carefully!” This is a written communication meant to be visually comprehended, but here someone is using an audible reference. Right away, I said, “This doesn’t even make sense.” Grammatically it’s correct, the words were spelled right, but it was an unusual way to begin an alleged ransom communication. This whole “foreign faction” thing and whether someone is a foreigner or not … Do you consider yourself a foreigner when you’re in someone else’s country? Would you give that information away to the police? Right after the word “foreign,” they misspelled two words: “business” and “possession.” I believe both words were misspelled on purpose, because they both had to do with the double consonant “s.” If you’re going to misspell one word, you’re probably going to, almost by accident, get the other word right. Right then, I knew we had someone pretending to be someone other than who they really are. Within the first three sentences, quite frankly, I was convinced that this was not an authentic kidnapper. It was not an authentic crime syndicate or terrorist group or anything like that. This was someone doing his or her best to make themselves appear to be one of those entities, but it was clear that that was not the case.

[…]

YT: One of the things you can do via forensic linguistics is try to focus in on the age or the gender of the writer of a note, maybe where they’re from, the significance of certain phrases that they use. Was there anything like that in that note?
JF: Yeah, in forensic linguistics there is an aspect to it of linguistic profiling. We look for demographics, we look for personality traits, and yes, in some cases, depending on the style of the author, you can actually come into an age bracket, maybe within 10 years. You can actually come into gender. You can actually relate to issues such as nativeness — are they native English speakers or not, or natives of any language. That is what we did with this particular letter. You’ll see it in [The Case Of], that I spend a solid 10-15 minutes breaking the letter down, almost sentence by sentence, and also painting a picture of what kind of a person may have done this. I did actually say, “We linguists, we’re very conservative when we render opinions like this.” There are a lot of mitigating factors with language. Gender, of course, is kind of on a continuum. It’s not just black and white, man/woman. We’re conscious of that when rendering decisions about gender or the sex of the author. In this particular case, what I wound up saying was that [the note] has a maternalistic sound to it. If you want to make that into female, you can certainly do that. There’s about five or six examples coming out on the show, which almost comes across as a mother talking to one of her children, so maybe that, subconsciously, was in fact happening here.”

You can read the full article here.

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