Well there has certainly been a lot of publicity for the laurel/yanny clip recently. It is great to have so many people discussing speech and speech perception – but also a little disheartening that so much misinformation gets accepted as valid phonetics.
On 16 May 2018, I gave a presentation at the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Academy of Forensic Science. I was honoured to be introduced by Justice John Champion, formerly Director of Public Prosecutions in Victoria, recently appointed as a judge in the Victoria Supreme Court, and Chairman of AAFS Victoria.
Legal precedent based on false beliefs proves hard to overturn
Judges consider their profession to be among the most accountable of those whose opinions and actions shape our society – but what happens when they make a mistake in their judgments? After all – judges are only human: mistakes must happen, however rarely.
On 8 December 2017, two peak linguistics organisations delivered a Call to Action to the Australian judiciary, seeking review and reform of the handling of covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials. We have recently received a response.
Two new academic papers give detailed background on the legal and linguistic issues behind the problems with the use of covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials that are canvassed on this site.
I managed to record my recent presentation at the Australian Association for Forensic Sciences and have edited it into a short video for you. At 34 mins, it packs in a lot of new experimental results and case studies.
Problems and solutions from the perspective of forensic phonetics
SPEAKER: Dr Helen Fraser
Summary: Covert recordings are collected during investigation of most major crimes, providing vital intelligence to detectives. Some are also used as forensic evidence in court: it is here that major problems can arise. Covert recordings are often very indistinct, and can easily be misinterpreted. In one colourful example, ‘he died after wank off’ was shown to be a mishearing of ‘he died after one cough’ (French and Stevens 2006). Over the past thirty years, the law has developed practices intended to overcome anomalies like this, and ensure juries reach a reliable interpretation of what is said, and who says it, in forensic audio.
Recent meetings of the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS) and the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA) voted unanimously to send a Call to Action to the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA), asking them to facilitate review and reform of current practices for admission and use of covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials.
Many covert recordings contain speech in languages other than English. How should this be presented to the jury? Obviously simply providing a transcript is not enough. The speech needs to be translated into English to enable the court to understand what is going on. The process is called forensic translation.
ANU Press has now published New Directions for Law in Australia: Essays in Contemporary Law Reform. The book is available free as a download, or at a cost as a print-on-demand hard copy.
How Interpretation of Indistinct Covert Recordings Can Lead to Wrongful Conviction: A Case Study and Recommendations for Reform (PDF, 0.1MB)
Find the audio version here to hear all the examples and audience reactions
The Sydney Ideas Post Truth Initiative Series examines fake news, alternative facts, lies, bullshit, and propaganda, from a range of perspective–from the courtroom to cancer research, from philosophy to screenplays, from Orwell to Sean Spicer–with the goal to better understand the post-truth crisis, and to advise on how facts and reason might survive in this climate.
Impressionist Rory Bremner explores the role of the human voice in forensic phonetics.
Forensic phonetics – or voice identification – has long been used in legal proceedings to help determine if the voice on a recording is that of the defendant. But with the electronic age enabling the recording and storage of more data than ever before, its role in criminal investigations is changing rapidly and the race is on to “fingerprint the human voice”.
ABSTRACT Results are reported of a new experiment using an indistinct covert recording from a real murder trial, along with the police transcript admitted to ‘assist’ the court to hear its contents. Previous research using the same material has shown that the police transcript is inaccurate, yet nevertheless highly influential on the perception of listeners ‘primed’ by seeing words it suggests. The current experiment examines the effects of priming participants with a made-up phrase that vaguely fits the acoustics of one section of the recording. Results indicate that a very high proportion of listeners are easily ‘assisted’ to ‘hear’ the made-up phrase. Discussion argues that audio of this quality should only be used as evidence if accompanied by a reliable independent transcript.
ABSTRACT Recent years have seen a great deal of attention given to the reliability of expert evidence admitted in criminal trials. However, almost no attention has been given to the reliability of evidence provided by so-called ‘ad hoc experts’. Indeed, many forensic scientists seem unaware that such a category of witness even exists, much less of the substantial threats they pose to the fairness of our criminal justice system. ‘Ad hoc experts’ are used for a number of evidence types. Here, we concentrate on one type that appears in Australian courts on a weekly basis: interpretation of indistinct covert recordings. The aim is to draw the attention of AJFS readers to serious problems in the handling of this much-used form of evidence, in the hope that the AAFS might develop a position on the issues and support calls for reform of practice.
Thanks so much to those who generously gave their time to participate in the recent find-the-phrase experiment.
The findings (along with discussion) have now been published in the Australian Journal of Forensic Science, along with a guest editorial explaining some of the background and motivation for the experiment.
National Judicial College of Australia Conference 2017
4 to 5 March 2017
The National Judicial College of Australia and the ANU College of Law invite you to attend their annual conference to be held at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra on 4 & 5 March 2017.
In 2009, a Sudanese teenager known to the press as JB was convicted of the murder of Sydney man Edward Sport, largely on the evidence of a case worker who testified JB confessed the murder to him in a private conversation.
Here’s a news item giving background to the appointment, and subsequent resignation, of former South Australian judge, Brian Martin, as head of the Royal Commission investigating allegations of abuse in Northern Territory juvenile detention centres.
Phonetics is not the only branch of linguistics (the science of language) that confronts problems caused by false beliefs entrenched in the law as part of ‘common knowledge’.
The topic of translating and interpreting in legal contexts has many similarities to forensic transcription. Many of the issues are caused by what is often known as the ‘conduit metaphor’.
The difficulty of providing fresh evidence of wrongful conviction that emerges after the trial and associated appeals have been concluded is discussed at this interesting but troubling event hosted by Sydney University:
Here’s a video of a 20-minute talk I gave at the National Law Reform Conference. It summarises the main issues raised on this website – and I think the audience found it interesting and enlightening. NOTE: This video is a bit outdated now – watch it if you like but you might be better served by the material at Too Busy to Browse.
Here’s a new Research Briefing commissioned by the UK Parliament, bringing a welcome note of caution to the use of Forensic Linguistics and Phonetics evidence across a range of disciplines.
17 March 2015
Listen to these two snippets of muttered self-talk, then read on to see how a transcript can prime journalists’ perception.
If you are among the few who have not already heard the media’s interpretation of this audio, you’ll find it useful if you write down what you hear now, before reading on – and if you have a moment, I would love to be told your perception – you can send a message here.
16 May 2014
Social media claims Christopher Pyne dropped the ‘C’ word in parliament on Wednesday, but he says the word was ‘grub’. (SMH)
Huge interest the last day or two here in Oz as to whether Christopher Pyne, a right-wing politician, swore at a fellow politician in parliament.
10 April 2014
With so many responding to media invitations to form subjective opinions as to whether Oscar Pistorius’ emotion is genuine, are we missing factual errors in the reporting of what he is actually saying? Could scientific analysis help here?
23 June 2013
The Zimmerman ruling
A ruling has been handed down on the voice evidence in the Zimmerman case we have been following. Judge Debra S Nelson gave high praise for Prof Peter French’s evidence (in her words, ‘The Court found the testimony of Dr. French to be the most compelling of the witnesses presented.‘). That is an important endorsement for the role of genuine expertise in relevant branches of phonetics in the legal system.
12 June 2013
An ongoing murder case in Florida, USA is discussing the vexed issue of whether it is possible to identify a speaker from a tiny, barely intelligible ‘grab’ of poor quality audio. One of the issues is the extent to which speaker comparison depends on prior decisions about what is being said (i.e. forensic transcription). The USA is very open about their court proceedings, so we are able to follow along with the debate. In this post you can hear the audio, and then (preferably in that order) read about case and listen to the expert testimony.
3 April 2013
The New South Wales Law Reform Commission has just released its Report 136 on Jury Directions. Although not explicitly mentioned in its terms of reference, the report takes the opportunity in Section 6.5 (pages 123ff) to reinforce the current practices regarding presentation of hard-to-hear covert recordings. That is rather disappointing in view of the significant problems with this area of the law that have been pointed out by phonetic science.
The PACT experiments represent a more commonplace – and more disturbing – problem with the treatment of forensic transcription than the crisis call experiment. Again they use audio from a real murder trial. If you have read the case study, you’ll recognise this story. Here we go into a bit more detail on the experimental results than in the case study itself.
Here’s an experiment shows the dangers of leaving the task of evaluating the transcript of a ‘disputed utterance’ to the jury.
Early one morning, a young man returned home from his paper round. About twenty minutes later, he made a crisis call (emergency call) reporting his entire family were lying dead in the house.
Priming, in relation to speech, is the tendency of the human ear to hear words that have been suggested, either explicitly or by context – even though there may little or no acoustic evidence for those words.