Forensic linguistics in court

At Language Log, Mark Liberman has a post dated 28.11 and headed Plebgate judgment, in which he reports on his experience as an expert witness, with Peter French appearing for the other side (Mitchell’s).

As is widely known, Andrew Mitchell, the government chief whip, was stopped by police from cycling through a pedestrian entrance in Downing Street and is said to have told the policeman ‘Best you learn your fucking place – you don’t run this fucking government – you’re fucking plebs.’

The language aspect was that there were arguments that the police officer in questio, Toby Rowland, was thought unlikely to invent such an expression, and Mitchell was thought likely to use it.

Mark Liberman had to report on whether the time of the exchange recorded by CCTV cameras was long enough for the words to have been spoken. Both he and Peter French came to the conclusion that the time was long enough. Liberman quotes Archie Bland in The Guardian:

You couldn’t help but be lost in admiration for [Mitting’s] forensic command of the detail: you’d need a memory palace to keep it all straight. And yet it almost all seemed irrelevant. A judgment that took over an hour to read boiled down to the fact that two phonetic experts judged that Mitchell would have had time to say the “toxic phrases”, and that he had told his deputy that he didn’t know what he had said very soon after.

More from the case – full report here – in the Language Log post. Also the commenters get very involved in forms of address in court, starting with whether it was right for Mark to address an English judge as ‘My Lord’.

One thought on “Forensic linguistics in court

  1. “… the police officer … was thought unlikely to invent such an expression, and Mitchell was thought likely to use it …” The remaining doubt that I would have had is if the policeman could have REMEMBERED the sentence verbatim if, as is alleged, were unlikely to have, as I take it, a command of the language to invent them. Ok, police officers are thought to be more accurate in their observations and reports in a debriefing then normal people, though this has been called into question more times in court than could ever be counted, but it could have made room for a “memory” expert as well … Obviously the surveillance camera did not get a good shot of the lips of the defendant or else a lip reader could have corroborated or dismissed the accusation. That said, if the words were indeed spoken it shines an ugly light on what the “representative of the people” seems to think of his constituents. Obviously he is well-read enough to understand that demos is indeed the plebs and it was maybe time to find a better word for democracy that includes the “enfranchised” as well?!

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