Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A BBC drama & the birth of forensic linguistics

If you've been watching the recent BBC drama, Rillington Place, you'll know a bit about the case of Timothy Evans who shared a house at 10 Rillington Place with serial murderer, John "Reg" Christie. He was wrongly convicted and hung for the murder of his wife and baby daughter in 1950, largely based on confessions made in a number of conflicting statements he gave to the police.

Evans' conviction was first questioned when Christie confessed to killing a string of women, including Evans' wife and was found guilty at a trial in 1953. An inquiry was opened into Evans' case but upheld his conviction. Over the following years, arguments over the case continued in the media and in 1966, a second inquiry found that Evans was probably guilty of the murder of his wife, but not of his daughter. As part of this second inquiry, the linguist, Jan Svartvik, looked at the statements made by Evans to the police and carried out a linguistic analysis of the language used.

Svartvik found clear discrepencies in the style of the language, especially within the later statements. Evans had initially handed himself in and admitted to killing his wife, but not his daughter. He later changed his story to blame Christie, but by this time, the police were confident they'd caught the killer. Further statements were made under pressure from police after the bodies had been found and details of how they had been killed were known, which significantly, didn't match the accounts Evans had already given; presumably because he didn't actually know those details. Svartvik noted that much of the language throughout the four statements was what you would expect of an illiterate, working-class young man with lots of idiomatic language and nonstandard (or as Svartvik termed it, substandard) usage: 

She never said no more about it ...
I said 'I thought you was going to Brighton.'

However, key parts of the later statements used much more formal language:

She was incurring one debt after another and I could not stand it any longer so I strangled her with a piece of rope ...
He handed me the money which I counted in his presence.

Looking at the four statements now, the inconsistencies really jump out at you, as does the 'policespeak' in the later statements. For example, in the third statement, you find a classic example of 'policespeak' with the repeated use of pronoun + then + verb:

I then got up, lit the gas and put the kettle on.
I then poured myself out a cup of tea I had already made.

In normal speech, you much more typically find then + pronoun + verb - Then I got up...

Svartvik doesn't directly accuse the police of falsifying the statements, but the implication is clear. Perhaps more interestingly, from my perspective, he was the first to use the term 'forensic linguistics':

This sally into the relatively uncultivated field of "forensic linguistics" has been interesting for a number of reasons [...] it has provided the linguist with one of those rare opportunities of making a contribution that might be directly useful to society.

Couldn' t agree more, Jan.

Svartvik, J. (1968) The Evans Statements: a Case for Forensic Linguistics