George Orwell once wrote that he would have liked to a job identifying authors by their
writing styles, something he'd heard the Gestapo were doing. Sherlock Holmes and Dr
Thorndyke did it in unreality (Holmes was very keen on spotting the word 'plow' in
anonymous letters) - now it is being done in reality. On 19th April 1997 at the University of
Birmingham Guild of Graduates, Professor Malcolm Coulthard described the work that he and
his colleagues in the Department of English were doing in the new academic field of forensic
Combining the study of style with traditional handwriting analysis (not 'graphology'), and the
new ESDA testing, English studies is starting to earn its keep. The business in which it has to
work is less desirable, as the most demand for Professor Coulthard's skills are in the appeals
against terrible miscarriages of justice. If the victims had not been 'verballed' and 'fitted up',
there would not be work for the specialist. However, Professor Coulthard did mention some
recent cases in which he has been called in by the police at the investigation stage.
The Professor began with some examples of how errors can slip into statements as typists
transcribe tapes, and mishear words: the innocent 'German' as 'hallucinogenic' in a drugs
case, and 'show de man ticket' as 'shot a man to kill' in a black man's case. The typist made
an error we all might make (we try to make sense of what we cannot hear clearly), but the
typist makes sense of it in her world (which tends to incrimination).
Then came a case in which ESDA analysis (where a machine using graphite shows up the
impression of earlier pages on another) proved a victim's claim to be true - he had agreed one
statement, and later (on the next page of the pad, which went into evidence) the police had
forged another, in which the victim admitted his guilt. The impressions of the first statement
were found on the second, but only years later.
Going on to one of the confessions of the Birmingham Six, Professor Coulthard asked why a
suspect would admit to carrying "one white plastic carrier bag" of explosive, and describe
another bomber as carrying "two white plastic carrier bags". He explained, because the words
were those of the police (who were sure the explosives were in white plastic carrier bags),
clearly, because no one in ordinary speech would use and repeat those abnormally long
phrases. The Professor was able to explain this usage, with other evidence: no one at all spoke
that way at the trial, nor could examples be found in the University of Birmingham COBUILD
database of language usage.
Finally, came the case that gave the professor the title of his lecture: "'Let Him Have It, Chris':
On the role of the Forensic Linguist as Expert Witness". In another revealing examination, of
the use of the word 'then' in the 'confession' of Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953, Professor
Coulthard was able to show that Bentley's words were those of the police. 'Chris Craig and I
then ...', 'the policeman then ...', Bentley said over and over. But outside police reports no
one puts 'then' after the subject of a sentence - it is the police whose reports are obsessed with
sequence. The words that were used to convict him, were not those of Derek Bentley. Again,
the Professor could verify this against the COBUILD database.
After an engrossing ninety minutes, Professor Coulthard took questions from the floor. It
soon became clear that people had experience of the poor way in which justice functions, but
felt powerless to act. Others could not understand how the authorities could do such things.
And others, still, unfortunately, could.
A new academic journal, Forensic Linguistics, is now published by Routledge, but will soon
move to the University of Birmingham Press. With revelations of the state of the FBI
laboratories in the USA, that journal looks likely to be read around the world.