Friday, July 25, 2014

Isla Vista, circa 2007

Oh the things you find cleaning out the draft folder of your email account. I found this gem from June of 2007. I’ll give you a moment to recover from the fact that that was already 7 years ago (!!). I am assuming that since it was in the draft folder the intended recipient never got it—anyway, it was too good to keep it to myself. Below is the body of the email:

Here's a story for the books. I probably didn't tell you but around the first week of this quarter [Spring quarter, 2007] I was one of many Isla Vistans to experience the tragedy of bike theft. Someone (probably in a drunken stupor) absconded with my treasured green huffy beach cruiser. I didn't notice until Monday morning when I went to my back yard and noticed that something was bike! I realized it was partially my fault for not locking it to something, plus I’ll be going to Ireland soon and don’t need a bike; plus I figured it had already served me the first three years of college, so I got over it and spent this entire quarter on foot. It wasn't too bad actually, I rather enjoyed the quality time in the sunshine walking from this lecture to that one.

So, Thursday. My last day on the campus of UCSB. It's 8:45 in the morning and I receive a phone call as I study for my Italian final at 10. It's CSO (Campus Security Officer) notifying me that they have found my bike. Can you believe it? The last day of class and now they find my bike. Good thing I paid that $6 my freshman year to register that bad boy! So, the officer asks, "Do you own a green beach cruiser?" to which I reply, "Well I did, but it was stolen" "When was it stolen?" he asked, "The first week of April" I said. "What color was it?" me: "Green...Is it still??" there was a pause, I already knew "No, it's been spray painted black." My heart broke when he told me this—I loved that green bike. I guess CSOs are trained to spot spray painted bikes because they are more often than not spray painted for a reason.
So apparently they come across my bike at the chem building. They checked the serial number and registered owner and notice that it doesn't correspond with the person who had it. The officer told me they had to conduct some "investigation" and I could pick it up in a few days. It gets better....

I have been interning for a criminal defense attorney since January and Friday was my last day in the office. I get in around 9 and the phone rings. It's a PNC (potential new client)-some guy saying he needs advice, thinks he needs a lawyer. I take down his name and information and pass it along to the attorney who calls him back later that day. So toward the end of my last day the attorney offers to take me out to lunch as a thank you. We get to the restaurant where a few of his colleagues (he used to be a public defender, so it was a bunch of public defenders) were already eating. They all start talking about whatever cases they're working on and the guy I intern for brings up this client he was hired by today. He said he is being brought up on charges of possession of stolen property.

He describes the client: "So this guy has this bike and he is apprehended by a CSO asking him how he got it and why it's spray painted and if he knows the registered owner—and he didn't really say anything. So the CSO tells him he can be expelled for these charges, but if he signs this statement saying that he had no intent of returning the bike there would be leniency, so he does." The attorney then asks me, "In your experience, have you ever known anyone to take a bike and return it?" I said "No. My bike was stolen and they never returned it. Actually I just got a call from CSO yesterday saying that they'd found my bike" The attorney: "Wait, CSO told you yesterday they found your bike?" Me: "Yeah.." "So when was it stolen?" Me: "The first week in April" He chuckles to himself then says, "I think I might be representing the guy that stole your bike" we all laugh; he continues "Well at least now I know I can represent the guy, it's not a conflict of interest if you don't work for me anymore"

If you’re wondering what happened to my beloved huffy, I must admit even I don’t know. I recall another phone call where I was told I could pick up the bike and asked if I intended to press charges. I said no because as I mentioned since I was going abroad at the end of August, I didn’t see much sense in storing the bike at my parents’ for a year. I also thought I wouldn’t be returning to Santa Barbara, but I hadn’t yet realized the missing credits after my time in Ireland. 

 The scene of the crime (my back yard in IV, 2007)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The fruits of my labor

I turned in my project this week and for those who are interested in an example of (what I hope may be considered) forensic linguistic analysis, here it is.

Let me explain what my task was. I had to find forensically relevant data, define a research question, and analyze the chosen data with a certain methodological approach to reach some kind of answer to the research question. I have never written such an analysis before, so I was appropriately intimidated but prepared to tackle it. The hardest part proved to be finding data. Of course I was also unsure of what I wanted my research question to be, but it wasn’t until weeks after beginning I realized I should first choose the data then read it to develop a research question instead of coming up with something I’d like to analyze and then try to find examples of it in whatever data I could find.

The module I submitted this project for is Introduction to Forensic Linguistics, which dealt with a number of units involving arrest and rights, legal language (statutes, legal documents, warnings), linguistically vulnerable groups (non-native speakers, mentally or otherwise disabled), police interviews, courtroom language and linguistic evidence. I could have chosen data in any one of those categories but chose to go with courtroom language. That in mind, my next task was finding some court transcript that was freely available online because I did not want to pay the inordinate costs of shipping copies (priced per page, by the way) or tracking down witnesses to sign ethical release forms. After enough Google searches, I came across the Innocence Project and one case in particular, a death penalty case from Texas: that of Cameron Todd Willingham—the only person ever executed in the United States where fire was the murder weapon (Mills and Possley, 2). In December of 1991, a fire burned Willingham’s house killing his three young children while the mother was out buying Christmas presents. 

The conclusions reached during the initial investigation, which formed a substantial amount of the state’s claim that it was Willingham who intentionally set the fire using a liquid accelerant (lighter fluid), were discredited by a number of independent arson experts, scientists and investigators in the years that followed Willingham’s conviction. The “techniques” the initial investigators drew on were largely experience-based and described by some of the experts who read the preliminary reports later as “discredited folklore.” (Grann, 16). No clear motive was present, other than the beer-drinking, wife-beating, dart-throwing, satan-worshiping (as evidenced by iron maiden posters and a tattoo of a skull) derangement the state clung to. There was little evidence at the scene to tie Willingham to the crime, but the state took the arson story and ran with it and were ultimately more successful than Willingham’s public defenders at persuading the jury that Willingham, beyond a reasonable doubt, set the fire in his own house with the intention of murdering his own children.

Incidentally, I found this data on what happened to be ten years later to the day that he was executed. Before I really dug into the transcript I did some research on the case itself and found there was plenty of coverage on it.  Mishandled evidence, unfounded conclusions and ultimately, the word of a mentally ill inmate resulted in Willingham’s conviction in 1992. The inmate I’m referring to, Johnny Webb, is the witness whose testimony I chose to analyze. The reason being that in 2000, eight years after the trial, Webb, who at the time he testified was on a number of medications and would subsequently be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, recanted his testimony—amounting to a description of Willingham’s sudden breakdown and confession in jail. Webb was quoted in an article about the case: “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?” (Grann, 8). He also described his memory of that time as “in bits and pieces,” (Grann, 8) a phrase I found significant as it was present in the trial itself in the form of a question from the cross-examining lawyer (transcript p. 35 line 7)

If nothing else, learning about this case and the “byzantine appeals process of death-penalty cases, which frequently takes more than ten years,” (Grann, 11) solidified my opinion against the death penalty as a form of punishment: as “Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that ‘the execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event’.” (Grann, 9)

Works cited:
Grann, David (2009, September 7). Trial by Fire: Did Texas convict an innocent man? The New Yorker. Retrieved from
accessed on March 18, 2014

Mills, Steve and Possley, Maurice (2004, December 9). Man executed on disputed forensics: fire that killed his three children could have been accidental. The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from,0,1173806.story
accessed on March 18, 2014.