Criminals Brought to Book by the Way They Write and Talk

The Birmingham Post (England), September 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Criminals Brought to Book by the Way They Write and Talk


Byline: By Richard Sadler

Murderers, paedophiles and other dangerous criminals are finding it increasingly difficult to escape justice thanks to a new type of forensic science developed in Birmingham which homes in on the electronic trail of evidence left by text messages, emails and computer hard drives.

Scientists at Aston University are pioneering the use of so-called forensic linguistics - systematic analysis and comparison of patterns of written speech - to identify the true authors of incriminating messages, letters and written documents.

The technique has already helped secure the conviction of murderers and now scientists at Aston University's newly-established Centre for Forensic Linguistics said they were being overwhelmed by requests from police to help gather evidence.

"We've seen a massive growth in case work particularly in the area of electronic communication - SMS text messages, internet relay chat and email and our track record over the past 10 years has shown it can be effective," Dr Tim Grant, told the British Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday.

"It's particularly useful in difficult cases where other forms of forensics fail because there's no physical crime scene."

Dr Grant, who over the next two months is due to give written or video link evidence for trials in the United States, South Africa and Australia, said this kind of evidence was bound to become more and more in demand.

"There's been a massive growth in people writing to one another using phones computers or electronic gadgets.

"In these situations it's easy to be anonymous - or at least feel you are anonymous - and while traditional police forensics can trace back and tell you where a phone was when a call was made, it can't tell you who was holding it and that is where forensic linguistics is proving so useful."

The key to determining authorship of messages or written documents is to identify patterns of style, spelling and language, the spacing between words, punctuation and the analysing frequency of functional words like 'of', ' and,' 'if' and 'the. …

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