Forensic Phonetics 101: Unlearning

jury What is Forensic Phonetics?

It’s the branch of phonetics (the science of speech) that specialises in evaluating speech evidence used in criminal trials.

What is speech evidence?

As the name implies, speech evidence is any kind of evidence that comes in the form of speech. Traditionally speech evidence was heard from ear witnesses (people who remember hearing the speech at an earlier time). Nowadays the most common form of speech evidence is covert recordings.

listening-device
It’s a lot easier to get a covert recording these days!

What is a covert recording?

Covert means ‘secret’ so a covert recording is a conversation captured (on tape or digitally) without the knowledge of one or more of the participants. Covert recordings can provide very powerful evidence, allowing the court to hear defendants or witnesses giving information or admissions they would not be willing to provide openly.

Of course for a covert recording to be reliable evidence, we need certainty about who is speaking and what they are saying. Unfortunately, due to their secretive nature, there is often room for dispute about exactly who the speakers are. Also, since it is hard to control the recording conditions of covert audio, the quality is often poor, to the extent it is hard to be certain about what is being said. Expert phoneticians can sometimes assist with both of these issues.

Sounds exciting – phonetics can catch crooks!

crime-sceneYes, forensic phonetics can be exciting, and there’s no doubt it can occasionally be of great assistance in making sure the right person goes to prison. But that’s not the main reason for this module.

There is a darker side to speech evidence.

There’s a world of difference between catching a crook (that’s the investigation, carried out by detectives) and trying a defendant (that’s a trial, carried out by a court of law). It’s the latter we focus on at Rethink Speech.

The law for handling speech evidence has developed with almost no consultation of phonetic science. That’s because understanding and interpreting speech is considered to be a matter of ‘common knowledge’ – and the law operates on the principle that in matters of common knowledge, the jury should be allowed to make up their own mind, with appropriate assistance as determined by the judge.

But common knowledge about speech is unreliable!

Yes it certainly is – as you will know if you have had had a chance to look around Rethink Speech, and especially if you have done Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning, our flagship course.

The fact that much speech evidence is evaluated on the basis of ‘common knowledge’ creates significant unfairness in our criminal justice system.

Believe it or not, that injustice is sometimes exacerbated when experts are called in. This is partly because the law has little knowledge of phonetics, and often calls the wrong kinds of expert, and partly because even genuine experts’ testimony can be interpreted wrongly if laid on top of false beliefs of common knowledge.

We really need to Rethink Forensic Phonetics!

And like most of the other Rethink Speech modules, it is necessary to start by Unlearning some widespread but false beliefs. That way we have a solid foundation on which to build a body of true beliefs about what can and can’t be done under various conditions.

So the aim of the forensic modules is to help you unlearn some unreliable assumptions about what can and can’t be done

  • detective-156465__340by ear witnesses (with or without a recording)
  • by experts in disciplines other than forensic phonetics
  • by ‘ad hoc experts’ (i.e. detectives working on the case)
  • by experts in forensic phonetics.

Ready to get started?

The links below take you to previews. If you are not a member, you will need to sign up (FREE for 10 days) to view the full content. Enjoy!

Choose your module!

It’s best to do them in order, but if you have a special interest, you can probably follow by jumping straight in. Within each module, it’s best to do the demonstrations in order.