Forensic Linguistics Institute

FORENSIC LINGUISTICS INSTITUTE

Founded 1994


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Excerpts from Word Crime

A pinkhandled kitchen devil knife, and other fabrications

In this chapter I am going to look at how forensic linguistics can be helpful in indicating whether evidence has been fabricated – specifically, police statements. The only thing I will change from the original text in each case will be people’s names or other identifying information (unless the matter is already in the public domain, in which case there is no need to change anything). The aim is to observe some of the linguistic strategies used by police officers and others when dealing with evidence which may not agree with an approved version of events. It should be stressed that police officers are not alone in fabricating evidential documents and that sometimes the motive for fabricating evidence is not dishonesty or a desire to falsify evidence, but the fear that courts will reject testimony that does not conform to legal expectations. One such legal expectation is that when two officers witness an incident their statements must agree with each other. Unfortunately, the process whereby two statements are made to ‘agree’ with each other often results in wordforword copying. There seems to be a view among some police officers that there is ‘safety in numbers’, that if several officers give the identical evidence then the police are being ‘consistent’. Consistency is a virtue: a police force that is consistent is strong, effective, and worth the public funds that are spent on it.

Courts also like consistency. It makes judges and lawyers feel that they are doing their job properly. If ten officers say the same thing then what they say must be correct, surely? In fact, consistency between what people say is not how language works. Ten different people will give you ten different descriptions of a person walking past them. Ask them 10 minutes later, and the descriptions will vary even more: because now, in addition to naturally occurring variation – based on the wide variety of human experience among these hypothetical ten people – in addition, there is now that other great fabricator of social variety: fallible human memory.

Dr John Olsson, Forensic Linguist


Excerpts from Word Crime

Forensic linguistics and murder

Forensic linguistics and police statements

Doing forensic linguistics

The Prosecutor of the ICC v the President of Kenya

The missing flight attendant and the concrete tomb

Dr. John Olsson
About Dr. John Olsson