Forensic Linguistics: Applying the Scientific Principles of Language Analysis to Issues of the Law

Dr Robert Andrew Leonard
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Case studies of using forensic linguistics to advance the cause of justice in the application of the law. In one case, for example, housing inspectors entered a woman's apartment in NY and charged her with a housing violation. The inspectors claimed the woman had given consent for the search; she said they claimed they were documenting landlord deficiencies. The Hofstra Law School Housing clinic took the case on behalf of the indigent woman and asked the Hofstra Forensic Linguistics Project to analyze the language data. The Project scripted questions to be asked of the inspectors exploring how (and why) a virtually monolingual Spanish speaker could give her oral consent to two inspectors who spoke almost no Spanish. The Project analyzed various possible linguistic scenarios which the Clinic then used to help their client. Charges were eventually dropped. Other of the author's cases involve establishing the meaning in a contract; assisting the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force to search for a racist letter writer threatening to bomb a theater; and a Pennsylvania murder investigation.

Keywords: Forensic Linguistics, Linguistics, Language, Putting theory and research into practice, Justice, Law, Police, Legal Clinic, Forensic Linguistics Project, Meaning, Authorship
Stream: Language, Linguistics
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Forensic Linguistics

Dr Robert Andrew Leonard

Professor and Director, Forensic Linguistics Project, Hofstra University

Leonard's linguistic specialty of Forensic Linguistics augments legal analysis by applying rigorous, scientifically accepted principles of analysis to legal evidence like contracts, confessions, and recorded speech. In the U.S. legal system, language is key. Through language we promulgate laws, issue subpoenas and warrants, question suspects, give testimony, write contracts, confess, claim and deny. Attorneys use language to write briefs, make opening and closing arguments, question and cross-examine witnesses; judges issue orders, write decisions, and charge juries. As biology and physics play crucial roles in the interpretation of forensic medical and ballistic data, linguistics enables a deeper understanding of forensic language phenomena. At Hofstra, the study of legal linguistics is centered at the Forensic Linguistics Project, which Dr Leonard directs. Dr Leonard has taught at Columbia and was Vice President of Friends World College and for several years Director of their East African Center, teaching undergraduates and doing fieldwork among the Akamba and Swahili peoples. At Hofstra he continues his connection with African studies as Professor of Swahili, the language he studied for his doctoral dissertation, and as Deputy Director of the Africa Network. Leonard has served as consultant on language and intercultural matters to clients that include The New Yorker Magazine, law firms, advertising agencies, television networks, police and government agencies. In the arts, Dr Leonard co-founded and led the rock group Sha Na Na and as bass and lead singer performed at the Woodstock Festival, the Fillmores East and West, on television's Tonight Show, and in the Academy Award-winning Woodstock movie. Professor Leonard's research focuses not only on forensic linguistics but on language and other conceptual systems such as identity, food behavior, and architectural and public space. He has published on linguistic theoretical semantics and forensic linguistics. He co-edited The Asian-Pacific American Heritage (Routledge) and contributed to it articles on dialect, slang and standard languages; Southeast Asian food; and food and ethnic identity. The volume was chosen by the American Library Association as "One of the Outstanding Academic Books of the Year." His research in the anthropology of food was presented at the Oxford Food Symposium, St. Anthony's College, Oxford University and published by Prospect Books of London.

Ref: H05P0891