Traditionally, forensic linguists use a descriptive approach. They demonstrate that there are several similarities between documents written by a single author. Relying initially on police work to narrow down the number of suspects, they are able to use robust statistical methods to ascertain the identity of the author. They can also compile an offender profile based on the evidence.
Professor Malcolm Coulthard, Director of the Centre, was instrumental in securing the conviction of David Hodgson for the murder of Jenny Nicholl, a teenager from North Yorkshire who disappeared in 2005. By analysing text messages sent from Jenny’s phone after she disappeared, and comparing those with messages sent before her disappearance and those from the defendant’s phone, Professor Coulthard was able to deduce that Hodgson had sent the messages on Jenny’s behalf. His expert testimony was instrumental in securing the conviction.
Dr Tim Grant submitted evidence to a case in Durban, South Africa, involving a disgruntled professor who sent letters to a local newspaper criticising his university and signed them in the names of different colleagues. Thanks to Dr Grant’s evidence, identifying the professor as sole author of the letters, the case was settled out of court.
The Centre has also been instrumental in gaining recognition for the field of forensic linguistics. In September 2008 it was recognised by the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners, and in the same month, Dr Grant delivered the Joseph Lister award lecture at the British Association Festival of Science – the largest of its kind in Europe.
For more information visit the Centre for Forensic Linguistics webpages.