Criminal Law

By Sai Ranjit


Could your poor grammar sink you in a murder trial?

The use of different types of forensic evidence is starting to gain greater traction in Australian Courts, particularly as the use of different technologies become more accepted and more reliable.  As the use of such evidence expands, criminal defence lawyers need to be more vigilant about the reliability of some of these somewhat flimsy new sciences.

Whilst the study of linguistics has been around for a long time, the use of linguistic experts in a forensic setting is more novel. Thus far there have not been any cases in Australia using forensic linguistic experts, there have in the UK and the US.

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.

Forensic linguists are used around the world to assist in solving criminal cases. Every person has a unique method of writing (including the use of punctuation) and speaking. Whether it is in text messages, emails, death threats, suicide notes or telephone conversations, forensic linguists are called to assist in deciphering and interpreting the document.

In 2013 a man in the United Kingdom was found guilty of murdering his lover and mutilating her body to cover his tracks. The victim, Diana Lee was fatally beaten with a blunt instrument before her body was dragged into her garage, mutilated and badly burned by fires that were started throughout her home.

There was DNA evidence and bloody footprints that placed David Ryan the offender at the scene. But it was ultimately the text messages he sent from the victim’s phone that pinned him as the killer.

A forensic linguist was used to help prove that Ryan was guilty of murder and placed him at the crime scene. The forensic linguist noticed something as simple as punctuation; double spaces after the use of a question mark in the messages he sent. This was not the typical style of the victim’s messaging.

You might have seen the Netflix series called “Manhunt Unabomber”, which is based on a true story and depicts how the use of a forensic linguist caught the offender. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Unabomber was an urban terrorist that set 16 explosives over 17 years killing 3 people and injuring 23 others. The authorities had no physical evidence, fingerprints or DNA. However, they had series of letters from the Unabomber sent to the media and victims, together with a 35,000-word manifesto.

Using a forensic linguist, authorities were able to pinpoint the age and the geographic origin of the suspect. The evidence led them to Ted Kaczynski who was arrested in 1996.  Ultimately Kaczyncki was convicted and is now serving life imprisonment.

Nowadays we are far more text-based than we were – with our tweets, text and Facebook messages.  We each leave a long and distinctive trail of our linguistic characteristics. I’m sure most of you have never really given this much thought.  Ultimately, it’s only a matter of time before there is an attempt to lead such evidence in Australian Courts and perhaps, at least some of us, need to be a bit more careful.