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.