1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

"Words on Trial -- Forensic Linguistics in Criminal, Civil, and Intelligence Investigations"

How could a death row inmate's future hinge upon the testimony of a linguist?
Forensic linguists use linguistic analytical tools -- conversation and narrative analysis, semantics, pragmatics, variationist sociolinguistics, etc. -- to assist non-linguists like counter-terrorism investigators to gain maximum intelligence from intercepted communications, or to help juries judge what the meaning of a contract is, or to help an appeals board decide whether the man on death row actually wrote the confession attributed to him. This talk explains how forensic linguists analyze language data in civil, criminal, and intelligence investigations, interdictions, prosecutions, and defenses through the application of linguistic theory to language evidence.
Robert A. Leonard, PhD is Professor of Linguistics at Hofstra University in NY. As a forensic linguist, he has worked as consultant to the FBI, and police, counter-terrorism, and intelligence agencies throughout the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, training agents in the use of forensic linguistics in law enforcement, threat assessment, and counter-terrorism.  Other clients have included Apple, Inc., Facebook, the Prime Minister of Canada, the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Leonard's testimony has been pivotal in investigating and prosecuting cases such as the JonBenet Ramsey case, death threats to members of the US Congress, and the triple homicide of the Coleman family in Illinois. The New York Times wrote "His consultation on the murder of Charlene Hummert, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania woman who was strangled in 2004, helped put her killer in prison. Mr. Leonard determined, through [analysis of] two letters of confession by a supposed stalker and a self-described serial killer, that the actual author was Ms. Hummert's spouse."
The New Yorker calls Leonard "A Sam Spade of semantics…one of the foremost language detectives in the country"
Newsday says "Think Professor Henry Higgins meets Sherlock Holmes"

Leonard was recruited to Quantico by the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (chronicled on TV’s Criminal Minds)—to train their agents in forensic linguistic techniques, and advise on their Communicated Threat Assessment Database.  

Leonard recently teamed with a Hofstra professor of constitutional law to start the innovative Hofstra Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project, through which grad linguistics interns work with law students to reanalyze language evidence that put people on Death Row.

In addition to linguistics, Dr. Leonard has received attention for having been a rock performer in the 1960s and 70s. TIME magazine recently wrote he "opened for Jimi Hendrix [at Woodstock] …but music stardom held little appeal for Leonard, who traded limousines and gold-lamé suits to pursue studies in linguistics. Piling up a slew of advanced degrees (an M.A., an M.Phil. and a Ph.D.) from Columbia (including eight years of field research in East Africa), Leonard is now a professor and the director of Hofstra University's Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment and Strategic Analysis. Brainiac Rating, on a scale of 1 to 11: 10" (Second to Queen’s Brian May, an Astrophysicist)
"At age 21, Mr. Leonard walked away from rock fame to pursue his real love: linguistics. Turns out to have been an inspired choice" added The New York Times.

To read the 2012 New Yorker magazine article "Words on Trial: Can Linguists Solve Crimes that Stump the Police?" visit http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/23/words-on-trial

Event Date: 
Friday, 20 February 2015 - 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Robert A. Leonard
Speaker Title: 
Professor, Hofstra University
Event Type: