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Is Authorship Attribution Useful and Should It be Used in Criminal Trials?


Forensic linguists are often called to court to answer one or both of two questions; what does a given text say and/or who is the author.  In order to answer these question linguists draw on sub-areas of descriptive linguistics including; semantics, the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text, phonology, the study of the sound system of a given language and morphology, the admissible arrangement of sounds in words.

This paper is looking solely at the second questions; who is the author? In particular the issues arising from authorship attribution, this report will analyse its real usefulness in criminal trials by looking at previous case law, and then continue by discussing if authorship attribution should be used at all, focusing on issues such as reliability of method, sample size and the possibility of an individual idiolect.

This paper will not consider the individual jurisdictions, however it must be noted that USA courts are far more hesitant about the use of forensic linguists during criminal proceedings.

What is Authorship Attribution?

Authorship attribution, also known as authorship identification/comparison, is just one area of forensic linguistics that has been exercising minds since the time of ancient Greek playwrights. The practice itself involves determining who wrote a text when its author is unclear by inferring characteristics of one text onto another; forensic linguists look for markers not just in the words themselves but also in the grammar. This is done by looking at all linguistic domains such as syntax, lexicography and those mentioned in the introduction, each of these are governed by rules but grammar offers the writer choices which make it distinct.

Authorship attribution can be applied to both written and spoken text, due to the vastness of this area this report shall only focus on its application of written text in criminal trials, including confessions and evidence.  Although this does narrow the scope of this report, the amount of case law and academic commentary available is more than sufficient to provide a detailed analysis.

Does it have real usefulness?

In order to understand and discuss the usefulness of authorship attribution it is important to look at cases were both the defence and the prosecution have been successful.

  1. Defence

R v Bentley

This case involves a posthumous pardon after the defendant; Derek Bentley was hung for his participation in a crime involving the death of a police officer, this was despite the fact that Bentley had surrendered and was in police custody when Craig, his accomplice, shot the officer while resisting arrest. As Craig was under aged he was only sentenced to life imprison. At his trial Bentley claimed that the police had ‘helped’ him his statement, which they denied.

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Coulthard was commissioned to produce a report on the disputed confession; one of the marked features identified by Coulthard was the frequent use of the word ‘then’, which was identified as the 8th most frequent occurring word. After looking at other witness statements and police reports, both relating to Bentley’s case and to others, finding that the use of ‘then’ was more frequent in police registers (appearing on average every 78 words), than in other types of statements Coulthard concluded that Bentley was not the sole author of his statement and that police officers at the time had in fact co-written ...

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