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Sex & Low Beach
Professor Robert Leonard solves crimes using his Ph.D. in linguistics. Leonard’s analyses of stalker, serial-killer, and bomb-threat letters have provided key insights into high profile cases such as the McGuire “suitcase murder” and the JonBenét Ramsey case. Now a professor of linguistics at Hofstra University, Leonard received four degrees, including his Ph.D., from Columbia University. Last month at Hofstra, he inaugurated the first graduate forensic linguistic program in the country. Leonard is also a retired member of Sha Na Na, a rock band that opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The Eye talked to Leonard about working as a forensic linguist, advancing the cause of justice, and taking tequila shots with Jimi Hendrix.
Could you just generally explain what the job of a forensic linguist is?
I have to explain this on the stand often. Most people don’t know what linguistics is either. In science, a linguist is someone who systematically observes language behavior and creates hypotheses and theories to explain language behavior. How we create meaning, how we understand, how we recognize who people are based on geography, class, based on language. Forensic linguistics has come to mean the application of the science of linguistics to any evidence that is language.
My specialty is language as evidence. If you think about it, so much of what we do in the law is language. We testify, we confess, we answer questions, we don’t answer questions, we raise questions, we write threatening letters, we write suicide notes. There are a variety of things that I typically do, but the one that is most reported about is authorship. I testified in two separate murder trials where a man was accused of killing in one, his wife, and in another, his wife and two little kids. And both of these cases, the man, or the family had received death threats over a period of time and the police hypothesized that this was a cover to get suspicion off of them [the men]. I testified the similarities between the known writing of the defendant and the death threats. I was able to link the death threat and the writing of the defendant. Both were found guilty.
Didn’t the men try to change their writing style?
Well, what happens is that when people change their speech patterns, unless they are professional research-level linguists, they don’t do it systematically. So they’ll change some things, but they won’t change other things. It’s not systematic.
Are there any particularly strange pieces of writing that you had to analyze for a case?
Sometimes, I’m asked how many variables and how many features do I need to get an analysis. I always give the example of a case that the Department of Justice brought to me: three letters that had to do with bombs. The question was if they could have had a common author. In these letters, each of the three letters, they described three different bombs. So far the balance is toward different authors. But next to each of the names of the bombs, there was an asterisk, and at the bottom of the letter was an asterisk ex- plaining how to build that bomb.
What are the odds that three different authors putting an asterisk next to the name of the bomb and then having an explanation at the bottom of the page? All the letters were in the same dialect, showed the same educational level. Now with this asterisk, it looked like the best hypothesis that they shared the same authorship.
So what is cross-examination like?
It’s roughly the equivalent of being beaten over the head with a baseball bat for a while. The interesting thing about being cross-examined is that one be- comes aware that a question may seem like it’s asking for information, but it’s not what the person wants. The person only wants to undo your testimony. They do it many different ways, and you have to keep your wits about you. You have to have a coherent and transparent analysis. It’s stressful.
And you still do it anyway. Is there any particular reason why?
Somebody has to do it! We have the opportunity to advance the cause of justice. Look at the difference, now people can establish time of death. Or DNA. We really have a responsibility to bring this to the courts.
Another interesting fact is that you played in a band at Columbia...
The band was Sha Na Na, which was a Columbia band that played at Woodstock. We opened for Jimi Hendrix, and not all Columbia students got to do that!
How did you get that opportunity?
It was pretty amazing because we were just normal Columbia guys and we were in the Kingsmen.We were more or less an a cappella group that got the op- portunity to play for a record agent. In those days, we had a very sparse performance schedule. We didn’t have a lot of the songs so we added songs; doo-wop songs, which we were too young for, but our brothers and sisters taught us. We went [to the record agent], and everyone went crazy.
My brother had the idea to do a full-out 50s doo- wop, highly choreographed, and highly costumed band. My brother looked at all of us and said, “Boys, I’m going to make you rock-n’-roll stars.” Five months later, I’m sitting in the most insider nightclub in New York where the biggest rock stars go to hang out when they have nothing to do. We were taught how to do tequila shots by Jimi Hendrix, who’s telling me how fantastic we are. It was an amazing thing. During the day, I was schlepping to classes. At night, I was a glittering angel in a tight gold lamé suit playing at all these colleges.
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