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The Interdisciplinary Study of Law and Language: Forensic Linguistics in Japan

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 1:51 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Professional/Interdisciplinary Studies | Comments Disabled

Mami Hiraike Okawara, professor

Graduate School of Regional Policy

Takasaki City University of Economics


Forensic Linguistics is a relatively new field, and a term was first coined by Jan Svartvik when he wrote The Evans Statement in 1968. The book examined a murder case that took place in November 1949, in which Timothy Evans was arrested for the murder of his wife and infant daughter. His trial began in January 1950. But because the prosecution was able to obtain his written confession during the initial investigation, Evans ended up receiving a death sentence and was put to death in March of the same year. Three years after Evans’s execution, John Christine was arrested for the murder of four women including his wife. During his trial, Christine confessed that he murdered Evans’s wife, which brought significant controversies and debates over Evans’s wrongful conviction and eventual execution. Svartvik made a corpus analysis of the original written statement of Evans’ confession and found two distinctly contrasted grammatical styles: (1) an educated style, possibly coached by an investigating officer, and (2) a casual writing style reflected by the defendant himself. He concluded that the authenticity of Evans’ written confession was very questionable, suggesting that the content of the statement contained the sign of significant external influence, rather than his own.

Another pioneering analysis in forensic linguistics comes from the Bentley case involving the attempted burglary and murder of a police officer in 1953, for which nineteen-year-old Derek Bentley was convicted and later executed. Although the actual murder was carried out by sixteen-year-old Chris Craig, he was not given the death penalty because of his age at the time of arrest. It was stated that Bentley’s IQ was far below the average of his peers and he was also functionary illiterate. Recognizing that this case involved complicity in a burglary attempt, forensic linguist Malcolm Coulthard analyzed Bentley’s confession statement and argued that Bentley personally did not make a confession as noted in the statement to the police. Rather, using a corpus analysis of the term ‘then’ in the confession statement, he found that large parts of Bentley’s writings reflected, and were composed of, words and language used by investigating officers assigned to the case.

This is how forensic linguistics, the application of principles and methods of linguistic analysis to the language of legal proceedings and documents, has become an established area in the interdisciplinary area of law and language in English speaking countries.

Forensic linguistics in Japan stayed dormant for nearly ten years after the first publication of the forensic linguistic paper ‘hou-gengogaku no taidou’ (Embryonic Movements of Forensic Linguistics) in 1998. With the preparation for the lay judge system started in 2005, there has been a growing interest among legal experts in making courtroom language clearer for lay judges. This has opened the way for recognition of forensic linguistic studies in general.

In this presentation I would like to present a revised version of the first Japanese expert opinion of a forensic linguistic analysis of the testimony in a criminal case involving a charge of complicity.  In this case two men and two women were indicted for a crime of bodily injury resulting in death. Three of the defendants admitted to all of the criminal charges, whereas one defendant denied the charges. The same prosecutors sought conviction of all four of the defendants while different counsels for the defense were appointed for each trial. I was present at the eight-day trial of the defendant who pleaded not guilty. I analyzed one witness’s direct examination testimony from the perspective of the prosecution and investigated the influence of witness preparation by the prosecutor with the use of forensic linguistic analysis.

My expert opinion was submitted to the Tokyo High Court and then to the Japanese Supreme Court.  In the opinion I identified the characteristics of prosecutor’s language which would appear in the prosecution witness’s answer during direct examination. By using qualitative and quantitative analysis, such as co-occurrence and concordance of words, I performed a linguistic comparison of the language that was used in a witness’s answer against that of five relevant documents. This included (1) a prosecutor’s opening statement, (2) a prosecutor’s final statement, (3) eleven samples of suspect’s statements from the handbook for investigating officers, and (4) two personal letters of the witness. The result of the analysis indicates that the witness’s responses had the features of the prosecutor’s written language.  Therefore, I argue that the prosecutor’s ten meetings with the witness immediately before trial may possibly have influenced not only the witness’s language but also the content of the testimony itself.

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