May 13, 2021

A linguist on the hunt for the criminal | Elementary Blog

Sheila queralt (Balaguer, 32 years old) has a profession as important as it is little known and underused. The forensic linguist jokes often with how hard it is to explain and that’s why his new book begins, Caught by the tongue (Larousse), with a confession to eliminate misunderstandings and stigmas that his work sometimes carries. “I would not say that my profession is frowned upon (in fact, at an academic level it is a prestigious discipline), but that it has simply been little visible. Forensic linguistics is a discipline very unknown by the general public and also by judicial agents, although it is undoubtedly an emerging forensic discipline that is increasingly present in judicial proceedings, ”he tells EL PAÍS by email.

Queralt, founder and director of SQ- Forensic Linguists, does not talk about the cases for which she has confidentiality clauses, but that does not prevent the book from being a window open to an exciting and well-told world. There are no parasites in Queralt’s explanations, direct in his answers and agile in his speech. He acknowledges that he has ethical conflicts, but also the recipe to follow. All that and more, here. Come in and read.

Forensic scientists are always on the run with cybercriminals

Ask. Which of all the cases is the one that reveals the most from a linguistic point of view?

Answer. It is extremely difficult for me to choose a single case. However, a case in which different linguistic information is observed is that of the murder of Ángel Prieto (2017). The analysis material was an anonymous call for help from a telephone booth in which they alerted to the existence of two injured elderly people in their home and that they needed medical assistance. Once the agents arrived at the home, they found the deceased man. The forensic linguists analyzed that six-minute call and were able to determine the sex, origin, age, profession and even hypothesize about the level of involvement in the events of the author of the anonymous call. In addition, after the arrest of the suspect, the voice comparison analysis determined that there was a high probability that the suspect was the anonymous caller.

P. Is the Unabomber the foundational moment of the discipline in its criminal application?

I have made linguistic opinions in which, according to my personal ethics, I did not feel represented, but I carried them out according to my professional ethics

R. No, although it is the most famous and one of the first. The founding case is the case that is collected in The Evans Statements (1968). In this case, a linguist was able to prove the innocence of a person sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and daughter. The linguistic analysis revealed that the statements of the defendant for which he had been executed had been manipulated by the police officers.

P. In the case of the Mad Bomber and James A. Brussel, as later also happens with Roger Shuy in 1979, a spectacular demonstration is made that equates the linguist with a fictional hero, all intuition and intelligence, like Dupin or Holmes. Is there any of that at some point in the performance of your profession?

R. Actually, in these cases there is not an intuition or a hunch, but a process of induction. The systematic analysis of the linguistic features present or absent in a sample allows us to draw objective conclusions about the most probable sociolinguistic features of the author of an anonymous letter. These conclusions are based on previous scientific theories and research that allow us to determine the expected linguistic patterns in certain speech communities segmented by geographic profile, mother tongue, educational level, etc.

P. In the fake section news Y deepfakes there is talk of Artificial Intelligence. What can a linguist do against the machine?

R. Forensic scientists are always on the run with cybercriminals. What we forensic linguists do in cases of fake news or from deepfakes is to analyze the recordings manipulated for malicious purposes to determine if there are any alterations that may indicate that the speech has been falsified.

A linguist on the hunt for the criminal

P. I am fascinated by the case of the Zodiac Killer, but he solves it in little more than a page. Didn’t you want to give it more space? Or am I wrong and it wasn’t that important from a linguistic point of view?

R. Yes, of course forensic linguistics was very important in the case of the Zodiac Killer, but in the case of the book I wanted to highlight the relevance of the task of the forensic linguist to illustrate the ability to detect the will of an author to disguise the form of writing to hide his identity. In this case, the forensic linguist was able to determine that the Zodiac consciously modified its way of writing by introducing errors, but it was not consistent and that allowed to conclude that these were voluntary changes. The forensic linguist also helped rule out the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, as the Zodiac.

P. Of all the cases, another of my all-time favorites is the Yorkshire Ripper. As different journalistic investigations have shown, true crimes and other works, the investigation was a disaster and, also, for what he tells in his book, a lost opportunity from the linguistic point of view. Could this serial killer have been stopped earlier if he had listened and used linguistics experts more intensively?

R. Surely, although it is always easier to judge from distance and time. What is undeniable is that forensic linguistics should be understood as one more forensic science in an investigation and that, in addition, it has demonstrated its great potential to unmask serial killers, cybercriminals and even terrorists.

P. The case of the computational linguist Patrick Juola and how he unmasked Robert Galbraith, actually JK Rowling, is very interesting. Was she a bit clumsy in hiding or was he very clever? The case provokes me a reflection. It’s a brilliant exercise, but wouldn’t it have been better to leave her alone? Didn’t he have the right to hide behind the pseudonym?

R. Yes, the truth is that many times we have ethical conflicts and in these cases it is important for me to separate professional and personal ethics. In this case, the linguist acted professionally: he was asked for a linguistic analysis, carried out the analysis objectively, and drew his scientific conclusions. It is true that the right to write under a pseudonym should be respected, but it is also true that an author of that level is unlikely to be discovered sooner or later. It has a very particular and easily recognizable style. As it was not a court case, she could have remained anonymous and not acknowledge it.

P. What moral limits do they have in their work? Are they often faced with ethical conflicts?

R. Personally, I do not usually attend orders for cases that are not or will not be prosecuted. However, we must bear in mind that sometimes the work of forensic experts puts our morals and ethics to the test. I myself have made linguistic opinions in which, according to my personal ethics, I did not feel represented, but I carried them out according to my professional ethics, yielding objective and rigorous analyzes and letting justice do its job.


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