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Review of  The Language of Murder Cases

Reviewer: Kerry Linfoot
Book Title: The Language of Murder Cases
Book Author: Roger W. Shuy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Forensic Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.2029

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Roger Shuy, one of the founders of the modern sub-field of Forensic Linguistics, has written extensively in the interdisciplinary area of language and the law. In “The Language of Murder Cases”, Professor Shuy turns his focus on the vague legal terms of ‘intentionality’, ‘predisposition’, and ‘voluntariness’ in the particular area of homicide cases. These concepts are prevalent in such cases and are used in determining guilt or innocence, as well as in sentencing. Such abstract legal constructs are not, however, easily comprehended by jurors, judges, attorneys, and police officers. Professor Shuy’s stated goal for the book is “…to demonstrate the ways linguistic theory, research, and knowledge can be helpful in the investigations and courtroom phases of murder cases” (p.6). By showing how he assisted in fifteen actual murder cases, Professor Shuy posits and then illustrates how the field of linguistics can assist with making these terms more concrete and relevant for investigations and courtroom testimony.


Chapter 1: “Introduction”

Shuy begins “The Language of Murder Cases” with the recognition that the crime of murder is important, partly due to the consequences of the event but also because of the attention that such a crime draws. He writes, “[p]erhaps people are so fascinated with murder because it is the epitome of crime, the worst and most extreme offense thinkable – the ultimate bad act. Or maybe murder is so popular because deep down many of us have had our own murderous thoughts, even though we knew better than to try to act on them” (p.1). He observes that, despite the claimed progress of modern society, this ancient evil still exists. While investigating and trying someone for this crime, however, the main and most direct access into a suspect’s mind is their use of language. When physical evidence may be absent, language evidence exists and can offer insights into the suspect’s intent to commit the crime, any premeditation (as opposed to spontaneity) in committing the act, and whether the crime was enacted voluntarily.
In order to conduct his analyses, Shuy identifies a particular speech event: a ‘murder event’. This murder event contains its own speech events which are, in turn, sequenced and have their own rules and parameters. He states linguistic analysis of these events can contribute to the evidence of murder cases, “…in particular about how the language used by the participants either enlightens or contradicts the governing legal terms, ‘intentionality’, ‘premeditation’, and ‘voluntariness’, and eventually about the jury’s task of determining the meaning of reasonable doubt” (p.14).

Shuy directs this book at two main readerships: forensic linguists and attorneys/legal professionals. When writing for such different audiences, however, Shuy notes they will bring different knowledge to the subject. For that reason, Chapter 2 focuses on introducing the legal terms of murder cases to non-law readers and Chapter 3 introduces terms used in linguistic analysis to the non-linguist readers.

Chapter 2: “Murder Laws and Terminology”

Before beginning his analyses, Shuy reiterates that the mental state of a suspect is difficult to capture and comprehend. Plain semantic analysis of terms such as ‘intentionality’ and ‘voluntariness’ are insufficient due to the abstract nature of the concepts and reliance on the context in which they are employed. Shuy lists a number of federal, state, and common law statutes which utilize these terms and highlights how they yet remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. He observes, “…what stands out to linguists who consult with attorneys in murder cases is the vagueness of many of these legal definitions” (p.31). In highlighting the importance of his work, Shuy states the best way into the mind of a suspect is to examine the available language evidence “…because language is virtually the only window to such mental states” (p.42).

Chapter 3: “Analyzing Murder Law Terminology and Evidence”

In the next section, Shuy introduces linguistic terms he will employ in the subsequent chapters of the book, starting with the speech event and moving to smaller language units. He notes that schemas and agendas may influence how someone approaches a speech act, and states this is an important consideration during interviews or when undercover officers are attempting to capture admissions or confessions on tape, for example. He also observes that, “…the agendas of speakers, as revealed by the topics they introduce, are the strongest clues available about [intentionality]” (p.47). As the chapter progresses, Shuy states it is crucial that linguistic analysis begins with the entire speech event. It is a common strategy of attorneys and lawyers to utilize specific language evidence (e.g. part of a recording) that highlights elements that fulfill their goals. Such decontextualization of smaller language elements can be misleading, however, skewing evidence to a particular purpose. For that reason, the entire murder event should be considered as a complete life event. The remainder of this chapter deals with individual parts of the murder event, including the gathering of undercover recordings, interviews of suspects and witnesses, courtroom testimony, and the validity of any confessions or admissions obtained.

Chapter 4: “Linguistic Profiling When There is No Known Murder Suspect”

The fourth chapter of this text, and first foray into the analytical case studies, deals with two cases (the Unabomber and the Gary Indiana Women’s Medical Clinic) where threats were provided by an unknown suspect. As Shuy notes, these cases are unusual as the intentionality, predisposition, and voluntariness are not necessarily in question. They are made fairly clear in the threats. These cases, however, illustrate nicely the parallel and insight that linguistic analysis can offer to law enforcement’s more conventionally used behavioral profiles. The aims of these profiles, both linguistic and behavioral, are to narrow the list of suspects, rather than to provide a specific identity. Shuy’s examples are taken from these two cases and brilliantly illustrate how forensic linguists can be of assistance to the more traditional resources utilized by police and attorneys.

The remaining chapters in the book describe the cases in which Shuy and, in two cases, his partner Robert Leonard (of Hofstra University) offered their expertise. These studies highlight the ways in which linguistic analysis was used to support the investigations. It is not my intention here to ‘give away the ending’ of these chapters – that takes away the fun from reading them! I will leave it to the reader to appreciate the individual cases presented in the body of the book. I assure said reader, however, that the influence and utility of forensic language analysis, as described and demonstrated by the author, is fascinating.

Conclusion: “Reasonable Doubt in Murder Case”

Shuy ends his book with a discussion of the notoriously vague nature of ‘Reasonable Doubt’, i.e. the standard of proof required for a jury to find a defendant guilty of the crime for which they are being tried. As with the main linguistic terms under consideration (‘intentionality’, ‘predisposition, and ‘voluntariness’), reasonable doubt is discussed using methods ranging from the employment of legal dictionaries to the contributions of formal semantics. It remains, however, frustratingly vague. Shuy goes on to say the phrase remains irreplaceable due to a lack of alternative suggestions. Shuy also uses this final chapter to summarize and tabulate the ways in which his analyses were used in the various cases studies and to detail the results of the analysis on the juries. In places his work is critical of law enforcement and courtroom practices, specifically when it comes to the possibility of coercion during interviews and cross-examination. Suggestions for avoiding these traps are few, however, though it could be argued this is not really the purpose of the book. Perhaps identification of these problems is the first step to fixing them in a future study.


As is typical of Professor Roger Shuy, “The Language of Murder Cases” is both well written and highly engaging. The language is accessible to both identified audiences (linguistics researchers and legal professionals), though I believe some attorneys may need to consult linguists in a few areas that get a little technical. As a (forensic) linguist, however, I feel the sheer breadth of linguistic fields covered in the various cases is breathtaking. These include reviews of phonetic reduction, the use of schemas and speech acts (of apologies and interviews, to name just a couple), and discussion of syntactic markers and what they can reveal. Linguistic techniques and conversational strategies that many linguist readers have possibly not encountered since grad school pepper the case studies – and this is welcomed. These illustrate how the field of forensic linguistics has grown, but also how it can be actively applied in the intersection of language and the law. The cases themselves range from the well-known to the obscure, but the inclusion of the ‘aftermath’ section at the end of each case study satisfies the curiosity if the reader is unaware of the eventual outcomes.

Shuy readily admits that his analyses and testimony were not always successful in convincing a jury one way or another, but this never takes away from the joy of reading the inventive and original ways in which he applied linguistic analysis. I highly recommend this book to forensic linguists at all stages of their career, to discourse analysts, and to those engaged in research in the fields of sociolinguistics or critical discourse analysis.
Kerry Linfoot received her Ph.D. in Forensic Linguistics from the University of Florida in 2007. Her research interests focus on police-citizen interaction, with particular reference to how Pragmatic theories may be utilized to describe and account for suspicions of lying or guilt in suspects and witnesses, and how these theories may be used in investigative interviewing. Her current work in academia, as well as her day-to-day job as a deputy sheriff in Colorado, involves observation of ‘first-contact’ interviews between uniformed deputies and officers in response to calls for assistance, and how the application of linguistic theories may maximize and harmonize the interaction.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199354832
Pages: 288
Prices: U.S. $ 74.00