LINGUIST List 32.767
Tue Mar 02 2021
Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Komter (2019)
Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <jecoburnlinguistlist.org>
Dakota Wing <wingdakota
The Suspect's Statement E-mail this message to a friend Discuss this message
Book announced at https://linguistlist.org/issues/31/31-1791.html
AUTHOR: Martha Komter
TITLE: The Suspect's Statement
SUBTITLE: Talk and Text in the Criminal Process
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
REVIEWER: Dakota Wing, York University
‘The Suspects’ Statement: Talk and Text in the Criminal Process’ by Martha Komter is the 33rd addition to Cambridge University Press’ Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistic series. Komter’s 207-page book provides an insightful analysis and discussion of the career of the suspect’s statement as it travels through the Dutch legal process, contributing important insights to textual travels in institutional settings, especially within the growing field of language and the law. Drawing on her previous studies and two decades of data, Komter provides a “complete story” (p.1) of the career of the suspect’s statement by articulately “investigating its construction in the police interrogating room, its written character as part of the police report, and its uses in court by the professionals who deal with the case” (p. 1-2).
‘The Suspect’s Statement’ is organized into six chapters. Chapter 1, the Introduction, is followed Chapter 2 ‘The Police Interrogation: The Talk, the Typing and the Text’, Chapter 3 ‘The Police Report: The Document, the Text and the Talk’, and Chapter 4 ‘The Trial: Documents in Action’) which methodically walk through the various stages of the criminal law process that the statement travels though. In Chapter 5, ‘The Career of a Suspect’s Statement’, concepts from the previous chapters converge as Komter analyzes the progression of a specific suspect’s statement from its construction in a police interrogation to its actions in the criminal trial. This is followed by a ‘Conclusion and Discussion’ in Chapter 6. Appendix A appears on p.189 and Appendix B is available online at www.cambridge.org
. Transcription conventions are provided on p. x-xi.
Chapter 1 introduces readers to the “mainly inquisitorial” (p.3) Dutch criminal law process, the materials and speech events considered for analysis (the statement as part of the police report, the police report as part of the case file, the police interrogation, and the trial), the ethnomethodological and Conversation Analysis (CA) approaches to the data, and the main concept of entextualization (the process of decontextualizing and recontextualizing a text (p. 11-12)) of the suspect’s statement as it travels through and creates different contexts. Komter also describes the two-decade-long data collection process and her innovative method of transcription simultaneously representing talk, typing, and other visible actions.
The analysis begins in Chapter 2, ‘The Police Interrogation: The Talk, the Typing and the Text’ with Komter highlighting the contemporaneous interrogating and typing of the statement and the effects this has on the questioning of the suspect and the typing of the statement. Komter distinguishes “solo” interrogations with one questioning officer from ‘duo’ interrogations with two officers, allowing for the identification of different interactional organizations (p.26). In solo interrogations, the questioning officer is also the transcriber, resulting in a recurring Question-Answer-Typing sequence in which, after a suspect provides an answer to an officer’s question, there is a period of non-talk during which the officer is typing. This uninterrupted turn of typing is viewed as a third turn receipt object, the onset of which also signals the suspect’s response as acceptable and recordable. Similarly, dissatisfaction with a response can be signaled by not initiating the typing.
The resulting text of the statement is the product of the officer “collapsing the words of the interrogator’s questions with those of the suspect’s answers, and by reformulating these as the suspect’s first-person narrative” (p.28). This renders the questioning officer invisible and results in the blurring of source distinctions. Komter’s transcription style also allows for the observation that officers often begin typing their questions (recontextualized as monologic responses) before the suspect begins their response, thus creating performance problems as the officers are required to type and listen at the same time. Komter demonstrates how the text that the officers write provides context for the talk, the text that is produced, and the way that officers orient to future audiences (readers), noting that it “looks backward, as a representation of what was said in the interrogation, and it looks forward in anticipation of the scrutiny of the legal professionals in the criminal law process” (p. 25). In duo interrogations, on the other hand, one officer is tasked with typing and the other with interrogating. This division of labor allows for continuous typing, and the act of typing along with what is said plays less of a role in the interactional organization than in solo interrogations.
In Chapter 3, ‘The Police Report: The Document, the Text and the Talk’, Komter explores the recontextualized police statement as a written text and material piece of evidence. The statement appears embedded within other texts representing anonymous bureaucratic perspectives and the reporting officer’s perspective, framing the statement’s origin and intended use, as well as framing it as an official, truthful, voluntary, and legally obtained statement authored by the suspect. Komter identifies various transformations that the statement undergoes from its original talk in the interrogation to the written report. These include the omission of information deemed not relevant (and thus the selective inclusion of ‘relevant’ information), reorganizing of the interaction, and adding information to contribute to the coherence and perceived procedural correctness of creating the statement. Different reporting styles are found to result in different transformations that can lead to varying degrees of transparency with regard to interrogator actions as well as misconstrued perceptions of adversarial interactions. These analyses demonstrate an orientation to future readers and users (e.g., lawyers and judges) of the statement.
Chapter 4, ‘The Trial: Documents in Action’, discusses the suspect’s statement as part of a larger case file and the actions achieved by institutional actors in the courtroom by reading or referring to it. The “professional reading” of the statement provides each legal actor (judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers) with varying resources for performing respective institutional tasks. Focusing mainly on judges’ references to the statement, Komter demonstrates their reliance on the statement when questioning suspects. This involves offering information to be verified, clarified, or elaborated in a first position action and then assessing the suspect’s response in a third position action. Thus, the statement, previously shown to be co-constructed in the interrogation, is taken as solely produced by the suspect. The suspect is therefore responsible for everything reported in it. In Goffman’s (1981) terms, when a judge quotes the statement, the suspect is the assumed sole author and principal. This allows the suspect’s version of events testified to in court to be compared against the version in the statement. Despite the suspects’ first-hand knowledge of the past events, when discrepancies occur at trial the statement is viewed and used as an authoritative version of the events (emphasized by the authenticity acquired by the surrounding texts as discussed in Chapter 3). Judges’ references to the statement to confront suspects with inconsistencies allow them to remain seemingly neutral and objective by relying on their second-hand knowledge of the events. Komter also notes that there may be interactional ambiguities at trial as judges not only use the statement by referring to it for questioning, but also by reading from it to ratify their verdicts. The former invites a response from the suspect, but the latter does not.
In Chapter 5, ‘The Career of a Suspect’s Statement’, Komter focuses on one suspect’s statement from its production in the interrogation through to its actions in court. This follows the sequence of interactions in the career of the statement as demonstrated in the previous chapters, allowing generalized concepts from Chapters 2, 3, and 4 to be illuminated as they are applied to a single case. Komter shows, among other things, how the suspect’s version of events undergoes a discursive negotiation in the interrogation, which is first recorded in the statement using the officer’s words, and then used by the judge to challenge the suspect during the trial.
Lastly, the ‘Conclusion and Discussion’ in Chapter 6 summarizes the findings in the previous chapters and the entextualization process that the suspect’s statement undergoes during its journey through the legal system. Komter discusses the various contexts that the statement travels through and creates, including the discursive context, the institutional context, the textual contexts, the interactional and sequential contexts, the documentary contexts, and the professional contexts, noting that “‘the suspect’s statement’ changes its meaning at every step in the entextualization process as different kinds of context are produced, emerge or fade away” (p. 181). Komter reflects on the analytic choices that inherently serve as a recontextualization of the data themselves and discusses implications of her work, noting that the unintentional and unacknowledged consequences of the entextualizations of the suspect’s statement may result in miscarriages of justice. She also suggests that her findings are likely applicable to other judicial and institutional settings as the “practices [are] inherent to entextualization processes, whatever their setting” (p.188).
‘The Suspect’s Statement’ is an exciting contribution to the field of language in the legal process, providing important insights into the recontextualizations of the suspect’s statement and, more generally, the entextualization process as a text travels through different institutional contexts. As such, Komter achieves the aims of the book, to “acquire insight into the interactional and documentary foundations of the Dutch criminal law process and, more generally, to understand the effects of the construction, character and use of documents in institutional settings” (p. 2). These aims are a reminder that such linguistic analyses can reach beyond the academic community and have important implications for practitioners such as the institutional actors who create, refer to, and rely on the suspect’s statement or other texts that travel through any institutional process.
One of the book’s strong points is the progression of the chapters following the sequential career of the suspect’s statement from the police interrogation to the trial and culminating in a case study-type analysis in Chapter 5 that incorporates and applies findings from previous chapters. Although Chapter 5 repeats analytic points and concepts from previous chapters, it allows readers to view the statement as embedded within a larger system and to follow one statement as it undergoes the entextualization process. Readers interested in specific stages of the criminal justice system (i.e., the police interrogation or the trial) will find the segregation of these stages in Chapters 2-4 especially beneficial. Despite the organization of the book possibly suggesting that each phase of the criminal justice system discussed in Chapters 2-4 is independent of other stages, Komter’s analysis carefully builds on and refers to prior and later chapters, ensuring that it represents the legal process as an actual process, with the suspect’s statement demonstrating its interconnectedness. This is exemplified in Chapter 5.
Readers familiar with Komter’s work will recognize some data and analyses from her previous studies. Therefore some concepts might seem recycled, but as Komter aptly states, “although this book draws on my earlier research on trials and police interrogations, the combination and the interplay of the materials result in a synergy that affords the telling of a different, and in a sense more complete story” (p.1). Indeed, the sequential analyses in Chapters 2-4 accompanied by the case-study in Chapter 5 provide readers with a thorough overview and in-depth analysis of the suspect’s statement’s career in the Dutch criminal justice system.
Another strength of “The Suspect’s Statement” is that it is rich with data and clearly data-driven with over 100 excerpts discussed throughout Chapters 2-5. Komter notes that the data come from three periods of time, the early 1990s, the late 1990s, and 2007-2009. Excerpts are labelled ‘O’ and ‘N’, presumably for ‘old’ (data from the 90s) and ‘new’ data (data from the 2000s), although this is never made clear. Explaining the excerpt identifications would allow readers to easily identify excerpts that come from the same case or time period, especially when excerpts jump from ‘old’ to ‘new’ data. It is also notable that only three of the statements are traced from interrogation to trial, but readers are encouraged to recognize the patterns that Komter identifies across the data at each stage.
Komter addresses the timespan of the data, noting that there are differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ data, likely influenced by procedural changes, but that despite these, “the professionals’ concern with finding out ‘what happened’ has not changed, nor has the nature of their truth-finding efforts” (p. 16). However, the analysis is not restricted to just ‘what happened’ and the officers’ efforts. Although these institutional goals can be oriented to (in CA terms), the analysis also focuses on the discursive and documentary features that Komter acknowledges have changed over time, including the report writing styles and the number of officers in interrogations.
The method of collecting the timing of the typed data during the interrogation is a limitation that Komter addresses but should be mentioned. Interrogations were only audio recorded, so the representations of what is typed during the interrogation is approximated, guided by “typing sounds” and “informed choice[s]” made after collecting and studying the data. Komter recognizes that this was most difficult when talk and typing overlapped and when statements were edited by officers post interrogation. Although she notes that retrospectively she would have installed a text-tracking device, the method of reconstructing data used for these analyses raises some questions about the reliability of the data.
The transcription conventions developed by Komter are innovative and warrant credit for simultaneously representing talk, typing, and other visible actions. This demonstrates Komter’s awareness of the importance of accounting for non-verbal features in transcriptions of interactional events. However, by only audio recording interrogation data, the amount of information available for analysis is limited in comparison to the trial data that was audio and video recorded. The transcription conventions require some getting used to, resulting in the key being frequently consulted. Readers unfamiliar with CA or Jeffersonian notation (although there are significant deviations from such standardized conventions) may struggle to follow the examples. Likewise, CA terminology is often used to discuss excerpts, potentially restricting the audience to those experienced with CA which would not include the proposed audience of legal practitioners. Nevertheless, the main concepts are made clear, and chapter summaries and the final discussion in Chapter 6 discuss the findings in broader terms.
Readers should also be cautioned that the data for this book has been translated from Dutch into English. This translation is only briefly mentioned in the book, limited to a couple of sentences in the transcription key and the introduction, and in two footnotes noting that typing errors are maintained. Komter does not reflect on her translation as an entextualization process. It is concerning that an analysis that focuses on the transformations of the statement does not address this recontextualization. The failure to discuss this results in an erasure of Dutch from the data and analysis, which is amplified by not including Appendix B, the Dutch transcriptions, in the print version or the e-book – they are only available online.
Komter’s contribution stands out among current literature as her data comes from a (“mainly”) inquisitorial legal system (p.3). As such, it offers a comparative perspective for studies in adversarial systems. For example, Komter details the role of the judge as the institutional actor who mainly refers to the suspect’s statement at trial, reinforced by a legal requirement for the judge to read or summarize aspects that their verdict relies on. This is not typical of adversarial systems in which prosecutors and defense lawyers are more likely to refer to and recontextualize the statement in alignment with the opposing goals that are inherent in the adversarial system. Thus, although the findings in ‘The Suspect’s Statement’ may not be generalizable to all legal systems, Komter provides a welcome analysis that can be compared and contrasted to other systems.
Readers should be aware that the types of cases the data comes from (i.e., a five-euro theft in Chapter 5) may limit the ability to generalize the findings to more serious offences. Additionally, some cases, such as the case detailed in Chapter 5, involve a minor, and the trial takes place in juvenile court. It is not clear if the interviewing practices or the trial procedures are similar for adults in the Dutch legal system, but the analysis is presented as representative of the legal process.
Furthermore, the practice of officers producing a typed statement is increasingly obsolete in many jurisdictions. Technological advances and procedural changes permit many legal systems to rely on audio/video recording or a transcript produced from these recording. For example, Haworth (2018) notes that in the adversarial system in the UK, official transcriptions of police interviews “are generally the only source consulted by those involved in the case, and are the version presented in court as evidence” (p.442). Therefore, the findings in this book may be increasingly limited in applicability as more jurisdictions require recordings and rely on these. In this sense, Komter’s work may serve as support for jurisdictions to transition to mandated audio and video recordings or other methods of statement-taking that aim to rectify the various issues she illustrates. Conversely, studies of statement-taking practices in countries that require and rely on recordings are noticeably not applicable in Komter’s data. For example, in Heydon’s (2013) analysis of Australian police interviews in a system with a reliance on recordings, Heydon notes that interviewing officers orient to future audiences in subsequent legal proceedings as hearers of a recording or readers of a transcript by using discursive techniques to elicit information from suspects in a specific ‘target’ production format in which the suspect is the author, animator, and the principal. In Komter’s study, this is not observed, likely because the officers type the statement in recontextualized styles that blur the source distinctions, and the suspect is presented as holding all production roles.
‘The Suspect’s Statement’ provides a strong foundation for future studies that can examine the suspect’s statement in other contexts, such as judicial opinions and media reports. Additionally, the same data may be explored with alternative approaches, such as investigating ideologies held in the Dutch legal system. Komter touches on this in discussing the referentialist ideology, noting that legal actors, especially at trial, “disregard the origins of police reports” (p. 185) and that this ideology is a “fundamental feature of the entextualization process” (p. 186). Further studies could also explore the power relations involved in creating, documenting, and using the suspect’s statement.
Goffman, E. (1981). Footing. In Forms of Talk. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 124-150
Haworth, K. (2018). Tapes, transcripts and trials: The routine contamination of police interview evidence. The International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 22(4), 428-450.
Heydon, G. (2005). The language of police interviewing. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Komter, M. (2019). The suspect's statement: Talk and text in the criminal process. Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dakota Wing is a Ph.D. Candidate in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics at York University in Toronto, Canada, and holds an MA in Forensic Linguistics from Hofstra University. His current research focuses on police discourse and he regularly consults privately on criminal, civil, and investigative cases involving language evidence. Dakota has worked with the Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project and with the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis at Hofstra University
Page Updated: 02-Mar-2021