Hofstra Horizons Research

Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra: From a Single Course to an International Institute

Robert Leonard, Professor of Comparative Literature and Languages; Institute and Graduate Program Director
Contributions by Ginny Greenberg, Director of Public Relations, Hofstra University

Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra

Justice requires the objective analysis of evidence

Imagine a justice system in which there was no scientific analysis of evidence. The time of death of a victim would be left to seat-of-the-pants guesswork; the type of bullet used would be difficult to determine; DNA analysis would not exist to place a suspect at the scene of the crime or to exonerate one falsely accused.

The emerging field of forensic linguistics seeks to improve the analysis of evidence in the same way that forensic medical examiners, ballistics experts, and DNA scientists have advanced the administration of justice through the scientific analysis of their data. Forensic linguists analyze evidence that is language – for example, suicide notes, threatening letters, ransom notes, interrogations, and contracts. It also has direct application to intelligence work.

Hofstra, a longtime leader in forensic linguistics, has recently formalized America’s first graduate program and institute specializing in this field, both headed by longtime Hofstra professor Rob Leonard.

What is meant by “forensic linguistics”?

This term has evolved to describe all applications of the scientific discipline of linguistics to any language data that is related to the law (and not only that associated with “forensic” criminal analysis). Thus, forensic linguists may study jury instructions, the construction of contracts, interrogation procedures, or methods to investigate whether a suspect wrote a threatening letter to a senator.

Institute and Graduate Program Director Rob Leonard’s expertise in forensic linguistics has led to his involvement in a number of high-profile cases, including the Taye Diggs-Idina Menzel arson threat letters, the Hummert murder, the McGuire “suitcase” murder, the Alvarez spy case, the doctored tape case involving the Canadian prime minister, and the John Karr episode of the JonBenet Ramsey murder (in which Dr. Leonard’s comparison of the ransom note and Karr’s writing found no compelling link, prior to the release of DNA results that came to the same conclusion). Currently, Dr. Leonard
has been admitted as an expert in courts in 10 states as well as in Federal District Court.

While linguists routinely consult with police and other law enforcement agencies, they are just as often called upon to consult with defense counsels. Certain interrogation techniques can create conditions in which subjects will utter what appears to be a valid confession but is actually only a response to the interrogation. The presuppositions of interrogators can cause them to believe that a subject has “confessed,” while a close examination of the actual language data reveals that the subject actually has not.

Forensic linguistics is also brought to bear in the areas of international and domestic counterterrorism, intelligence, and counterintelligence, where it has been seen that a focused analysis
of language can yield highly useful information.

Hofstra has become the leading U.S. university in forensic linguistics research and training
For several years, Hofstra has successfully supported the research and teaching of forensic linguistics to the degree that it has now taken the lead in the United States, and last fall saw the establishment at Hofstra of the first graduate program in forensic linguistics in North America.

Still, much research – and worldwide coordination of scholars and practitioners – needs to be done in this emerging field. To address that situation, this spring, Hofstra established an institute to focus on forensic linguistics research, especially its role in strategic intelligence analysis.

Through the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment and Strategic Analysis, Hofstra has established connections to a small community of highly accomplished forensic linguistics scholars worldwide, as well as members of the security and intelligence community who value the insights forensic linguistics can deliver.

Thus, the emphasis of the Hofstra institute is security and counterterrorism research and application; the Hofstra graduate program supports direct academic training and research.

History of Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra Course work begins

In 2001 linguistics professor Rob Leonard began teaching courses in language and law and forensic linguistics, longtime research interests of his. In January 2004, Dr. Leonard approached his dean, Bernard Firestone of Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (HCLAS), and proposed that Hofstra take the lead nationwide in developing forensic linguistics courses and supporting research in the applications of theoretical linguistics to issues of the law. Dr. Leonard often recounts, especially when giving talks at other universities, how at a time when there were at least 30 linguists all over the United States teaching forensic linguistics, only Hofstra had the entrepreneurial foresight to support and develop forensic linguistics teaching, research, and internships. HCLAS created the Forensic Linguistics Project, forerunner of the current programs, and with the Hofstra Law School clinics created internships for undergraduate forensic linguistics interns to assist in language-related cases in which the clinics represented indigent members of the local community.

Leonard trains FBI

By 2006 Dr. Leonard had given plenary addresses at threat assessment and law enforcement organizations around the country, and assisted in some major criminal cases – enlisted sometimes by the defense, sometimes by the prosecution – and was recruited by the FBI to participate with the Behavioral Analysis Unit-1 (Counterterrorism and Threat Assessment) in its Forensic Linguistics Workshop for Law Enforcement Practitioners at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Critical Incident Response Group in Quantico, Virginia.

Former SSA Fitzgerald joins Hofstra

When Supervisory Special Agent of the FBI Jim Fitzgerald, program director of forensic linguistic services of the Behavioral Analysis Unit-1, retired from the FBI, Dr. Leonard recruited him as faculty in the new Hofstra Forensic Linguistics Program and as co-director of the institute. (The Behavioral Analysis Unit is the subject of the TV show Criminal Minds, for which Fitzgerald serves as technical adviser.)

Fitzgerald pioneered forensic linguistics at the FBI, becoming involved through his groundbreaking work on the Unabomber and other cases that showed linguistic evidence to be pivotal. The FBI created a forensic linguistics program several years ago in response to the real-world demands of counteracting criminal and terrorist attacks, in which, time and again, linguistic evidence proved to be pivotal. For example:

The Unabomber, DC Sniper, and Anthrax cases, communications from Al Qaeda
Threat Assessment:
Threats to government, officials, workplace, schools, and private individuals
Criminal Communications:
Extortion, ransom notes, criminal intelligence disinformation, intercepted communications

Through FBI workshops, Hofstra workshops, and other intensive workshops, Fitzgerald and Leonard as a team have given training to ATF, CIA, U.S. Capitol Police, US Secret Service, NYPD, NJ State Troopers, Homeland Security, UN, Mounties, and the FBI NYFO.

Hofstra’s new graduate program

Last fall, Hofstra announced the founding of the first North American graduate program specializing in forensic linguistics. In this area, the United States has lagged; there already exist such graduate programs in the UK and Spain, and there is interest in China, in Kenya, and throughout Europe.

The Hofstra program, called the Master of Arts in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics, provides rigorous training in the core competencies of linguistics – phonetics, phonology, grammar, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc. – and teaches how a mastery of those theoretical subfields can advance the cause of justice by striving to analyze language evidence as objectively and scientifically as possible.

Adviser to the program is Dr. Leonard’s colleague and research partner, Dr. Roger W. Shuy, Distinguished Research Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, of Georgetown University. Known as the foremost forensic linguist in the United States, he has consulted on some 600 cases, testified as a linguistics expert witness in 26 states and before the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives in impeachment trials of U.S. senators and federal judges, and in international criminal tribunal trials. Dr. Shuy has written or edited some 40 books on linguistics, including writing 10 books on forensic linguistics.

Dr. Leonard has recruited, in addition to former SSA Fitzgerald, a group of dedicated and highly trained linguists from within Hofstra: sociolinguistics is taught by Professor Evelyn Altenberg, dialectology by Dr. Gregory Kershner, general linguistics by Dr. Mari Fujimoto, and phonology, semantics, and pragmatics by Professor Josef Fioretta.

The Hofstra Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment and Strategic Analysis

The institute it is an important complementary program to the M.A. in Forensic Linguistics, for its mandate is far broader than the M.A. program. Hofstra’s new institute has the potential to play a pivotal international role in forensic linguistics, threat management, counterterrorism, and related national security competencies.

The main foci of the institute are research and training in:
• Forensic linguistics in investigation, prosecution, interdiction
• Forensic linguistics enhanced threat assessment techniques

The institute seeks to:
• Conduct cutting-edge research
and provide cutting-edge training, course work, and workshops for counterterrorism, law enforcement, officials, and researchers – centered around the core competencies of forensic linguistics and threat assessment – two internationally recognized tools to combat terrorism.
• Seek to facilitate and coordinate cooperative efforts by U.S. and foreign partner institutions and
foster allied offshore intelligence initiatives.
• Hold international workshops in specific language intelligence competencies.
• Offer an Executive Certificate Program in Linguistic Analysis and Security Studies.
• Undertake analyses of incident-related critical communications.
• Plan and execute research programs to expand analytical capabilities.

Chief among its goals is a rapid-response international task force of forensic linguists and allied specialists who can react quickly to situations requiring analysis and intervention.
Sample applications of forensic linguistics-enhanced threat assessment:

THREAT LEVEL ANALYSIS: State-of-the-art techniques, based on thousands of FBI cases. When a threat is made, what should be the response? How likely is the threat to be carried out? How can the author be found?

LINGUISTIC DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILES: Increase contextual information and narrow suspect pools. Language structure, grammar, vocabulary, syntax, phonological representation can potentially reveal a writer’s regional and local geographic origin, education level, occupational training, gender, native language and other features.

AUTHORSHIP ANALYSIS: Further narrows suspect pools and can support investigation and prosecution.

The Hofstra institute – and especially its International Forensic Linguistic Task Force – offers an array of unique and distinctive services not currently offered by any U.S. or allied government agency of which we are aware.

As inaugural efforts of the institute, Director Rob Leonard recently traveled to London to train counterterrorism agents in the UK in forensic linguistic techniques, and similarly addressed a gathering of counterterrorism experts in NY. The institute also hosted an on-campus presentation on cybersecurity by Shawn Henry, a top FBI official.

Hofstra has the opportunity to become a leading center in the world for forensic linguistics-related teaching, research, and application.

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