Dr Leanne Bartley on Forensic Linguistics

Dr Leanne Bartley

As part of our ‘Language at the Movies’ events, run by the student Applied Linguistics Society, we asked former colleague Dr Leanne Bartley if she would contribute to an introduction to the documentary the society screened called ‘The Case of JonBenét Ramsey’ (Eddie Schmidt, 2016). We thought we’d share that with you and ask Leanne to outline her own research interests for you here.

Hi, my name is Dr Leanne Bartley and I work with a combination of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Corpus Linguistics methods to explore what I like to call ‘issues of criminal injustice’.

I actually stumbled across this idea a little bit by accident, if I’m honest. After reading the Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics (edited by Professor Malcolm Coulthard and Dr Alison Johnson, 2010), both well known scholars in the field of Forensic Linguistics, I was instantly hooked. So, I decided that my own PhD would examine a rape trial involving two defendants (both famous football players) accused of raping the same woman in the same hotel room on the same night; at trial, one man was found guilty and the other was found innocent.

My aim was to determine whether the language employed had had an impact on the outcome in each case (which is where my CDA background came in useful).

Of course, as with any Ph.D. thesis, nothing is ever that straight forward! Due to the sensitive nature of courtroom data, the UK judicial system will not give access to trial transcripts unless you are involved in the criminal case and so this line of enquiry turned out to be a dead-end as I was not involved directly in that case.

However, it did lead me to explore a different dataset that, in my view, was equally as fascinating and on which I still work.

To explain: my own research takes its data from a database of trial transcripts made available, on request, by the Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org/).  The Innocence Project is a non-profit organisation in the Unites States, working on cases of wrongful convictions to exonerate individuals using DNA evidence. My contribution to the organisation consists of presenting an analysis of the language used in the initial trial by all parties concerned to identify linguistic patterns and strategies that, in spite of insufficient evidence, may have resulted in convicting an innocent man or woman.

Dr Leanne Bartley

Given the difficulty to convict someone of rape, as indicated by the number of cases reported (approximately 15%) and the few that reach trial and result in a conviction (5.7%), I am most intrigued by those cases in which someone has found themselves wrongfully accused and imprisoned for rape.

It is my aim to conduct research in this area, not merely as a contribution to the field of forensic linguistics, but equally, to play a part in ensuring that miscarriages of justice are brought to light and if possible avoided altogether.

In this video clip, which you can download (Dr Leanne Bartley on Forensic Linguistics), created for an event hosted by the Applied Linguistics Society at Swansea University for their ‘Language at the Movies’ event on ‘The Case of JonBenét Ramsey’ (Eddie Schmidt, 2016), I try to offer insights into my own line of research as well as to other possible strands that, for those intrigued by forensic linguistics, may be keen to explore in their own research trajectories.

Moreover, my hope is to promote this line of work as an area of interdisciplinary research, which is why I relish any opportunity to share my research with others (https://theconversation.com/forensic-linguistics-gives-victims-and-the-wrongfully-convicted-the-voices-they-deserve-101660) and, in turn, make students and lecturers aware of just how much value there is in the work carried out by forensic linguists, which in essence, involves taking their specialist knowledge of language beyond the gates of academia and use it to help tackle real world societal issues.