Crimes involving words: some recent cases

Dr. Lorna Fadden captivated the audience at Wednesday evening’s November EAC-BC meeting with her fascinating talk about forensic linguistics. Dr. Fadden is an assistant professor of linguistics at SFU and also runs a consultancy as a forensic linguist, analyzing language evidence for law enforcement and legal counsel in criminal or civil cases.

Examples of crimes or offences involving language include extortion, ransom, solicitation, harassment, Internet luring, threats, coercion, perjury, hate speech, defamation, bribery, and plagiarism, and language evidence can turn up from a spectrum of sources, from emails, text messages, and letters to police interviews and emergency phone calls. Forensic linguists may analyze linguistic form (e.g., grammatical structure and word choice) or linguistic function (e.g., social context).

Modern forensic linguistics, Fadden explained, has its origins in the Evans Statements. In 1949 Timothy Evans of London was accused of murdering his wife and daughter. He was tried, convicted, hanged, then posthumously pardoned—an inquiry found that a neighbour had killed Evans’s family—and this miscarriage of justice caused the UK to throw out its death penalty. In 1968, Jan Svartvik, a Swedish professor of English, reviewed Evans’s statements, which were allegedly a verbatim transcription of what he had said. Evans had the vocabulary of a fourteen-year-old, but Svartvik found portions of his statements that showed the grammar and word choice of someone with a much higher level of education. As a result, Svartvik concluded that the police had made up portions of the confession, and the case put forensic linguistics on the map.

Fadden then took us through four of her cases.

Case 1

Fadden was asked to study a transcript of a 911 call, in which the caller gave an elaborate backstory before, five or six sentences in, telling the operator the reason for the call—that he saw a man with a gun. Most calls to 911, she said, tend to follow a script:

  • the operator takes the call,
  • the caller identifies the problem (“My wife is choking!”) or makes a request (“Send an ambulance!”) in the first few words, and
  • the operator solicits details as needed.

She added that criminals who call in their own crimes often go off script, because to them, there is no emergency and no urgency.

Fadden concluded that the transcript she analyzed didn’t meet our expectations for what generally happens in a 911 call, and although she had her theories as to why, it wasn’t up to her to make that determination.

Case 2

Fadden’s second case involved a young child being interviewed by family services for an investigation into allegations that his father sexually assaulted him. The lawyer who hired Fadden wanted to know if there was any evidence of coaching. In cases of coaching, you might see vocabulary or sentence structures that look out of place; children the age of the alleged victim tend to use common nouns and verbs and fewer adjectives and adverbs; they tend to stick to neutral terms or higher-frequency words:

  • look rather than leer or ogle
  • touch rather than fondle or grope
  • creepy, funny rather than lewd, salacious

Fadden concluded that the child’s vocabulary in this case didn’t support the theory of coaching, but she continued her analysis of the interview by coding the questions by type:

  • assertions (to be accepted or rejected)—e.g., Your dad touched your penis?
  • high-specificity questions—e.g., Did your dad touch your penis?
  • closed alternative questions—e.g., Did your dad touch your penis or your bum?
  • open alternative questions—e.g., Did your dad touch your penis or your bum or something else?
  • low-specificity questions—e.g., What did your dad do?
  • wide open questions—e.g., What can you tell me?

Fadden studied the alternative questions closely, because in those cases, details might not be generated by the witness but by the person asking the questions. She found a consistent pattern in the way the witness answered those kinds of questions (e.g., always selecting the first option in open alternative questions) and that they did not generate any new information. She questioned the credibility of those answers, contrasting them with portions of the interview in which the witness supplied completely unprompted details.

Case 3

Fadden analyzed correspondence from a man, the owner of a small business, who had met a CEO of a large firm at a public event and began sending him a series of letters. The CEO had never solicited or responded to the correspondence, but it kept coming, and it contained unsettling language. Did the letters constitute stalking?

Stalking letters, Fadden explained, have particular hallmarks:

  • expressing frustration with unrequited feelings or being ignored or overlooked
  • berating the target for the target’s transgressions
  • an offer of forgiveness for those transgressions
  • allusions to a relationship that doesn’t exist

Even though the correspondence in this case didn’t involve any kind of romantic angle, it nevertheless had all of the characteristics of stalking and was legitimate grounds for a cease and desist order.

Case 4

This final case has concluded, and so Fadden was at liberty to share details with us. On March 19, 2009, Justine Winter had a fight with her boyfriend. After dropping him off, she started to drive home, all the while exchanging text messages with him in which she threatened to kill herself. She crashed her car, and although she survived, a thirty-year-old woman and her thirteen-year-old son were killed. The prosecutors hired Fadden to determine whether these text messages constituted a suicide note; their assertion was that Justine’s death wish was a criminal act because two others died as she carried it out.

A suicide note, Fadden said, tends to have certain characteristics:

  • saying good-bye
  • claiming that life is too difficult to go on
  • expressing a desire to end suffering
  • imploring others to go on
  • expressing remorse or regret
  • expressing revenge
  • apologizing

Although Winter’s text messages had some of these characteristics, they also showed features—such as bargaining—that you wouldn’t typically find. “People who write suicide notes are way past bargaining,” said Fadden. As a result, Fadden concluded that the messages weren’t a suicide note.

But how credible was Winter’s threat to crash? To be a credible threat, Fadden explained,

  • it must be communicated
  • the subject must be motivated
  • the subject must have the means by which to carry it out

Analyzing the text messages, Fadden asserted that Winter’s threat to hurt herself were credible. Winter was convicted and is now appealing her sentence.


Fadden’s talk was thoroughly engaging and entertaining, and she’s clearly passionate about her work. What I found interesting was that she was very clear about where her role as a forensic linguist begins and ends. Her job is to assess the language; she can identify if something doesn’t fit the script, but it’s up to psychologists and other professionals to discover why.

Dr. Fadden will be moderating a Philosophers’ Café session, “Is language changing for the better or worse?” on December 5, 2012, at 7pm, at the McGill Branch of the Burnaby Public Library.

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