Guest lecture

We’re delighted to welcome all to the talk detailed below.  After the talk, from 2.30 – 4.30pm the speakers will each give a workshop which is also open to all.  The workshops are in room 3.56:

Wednesday, 29 October 2014 12.10pm – 1pm

 Room 0.31, John Percival Building


 Uncovering staged suicide: Case studies in authorship attribution

 Dr Natalie Schilling (Georgetown University)

and Jim Fitzgerald (The Academy Group, Inc.; FBI [ret.])



Although the academic analysis of suicide-related communications often centers on attempting to identify indicators of victim intent (e.g. actual suicide vs. ‘cry for help’), it is more important to first determine whether such communications were indeed authored by the victim or whether the apparent suicide and related communications were staged in an attempt to cover up a murder or attempted murder. Hence, alleged written suicide communications should never be assessed in isolation but rather in comparison with known writings of the victim and, if the investigation dictates, with the known writings of others who may be suspects in the authorship of the communication and/or the actual death.


In 2007, three separate homicides/homicide attempts in Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia were initially handled as suicides, as each crime scene included an alleged suicide communication. However, in each case factors emerged that suggested homicide (and, in one case, attempted homicide). In each case, forensic linguistic comparison of the alleged suicide communication with documents known to be authored by the victim and by suspected perpetrators yielded invaluable evidence indicative of inconsistency of the ‘suicide’ notes with the victims’ known writings and/or consistency with those of the suspects. Each case resulted in an arrest for the charge of homicide and the eventual successful conviction of each.


In this presentation, we outline the forensic linguistic analyses conducted in connection with these cases, demonstrating the efficacy of qualitative and quantitative forensic stylistic methods of authorial attribution focusing on such features as punctuation, orthography and lexical usages. We highlight linkages between forensic stylistics and sociolinguistic studies of stylistic variation and authorial imitation, as well as recent computational linguistic methods in authorial attribution of computer mediated communications, thereby demonstrating the solid linguistic basis as well as practical utility of the authorial attribution methods used in these three cases.


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