Language Identifies Red Flags In Night Driver Case
Written by Paul Curby
I was delighted to have been asked by journalist Hedley Thomas to assist in the investigation he was conducting into the 20-year cold case of Janine Vaughan who disappeared after a night out in Bathurst in 2001. Part of my work was recently featured in episode 11 of the true crime podcast, ‘The Night Driver’, created and produced by Hedley Thomas, which investigates the disappearance of Janine Vaughan (see link here to episode 11 of The Night Driver).
In episode 11, I explored the language used by persons of interest associated with the case and opined on the reliability of information provided by them during interview. Not all persons of interest participated in formal interviews with the police and some did not give evidence at the Coronial Inquest.
By way of background, some of the interviews with persons of interest were first conducted by police a number of years after the disappearance of Ms Vaughan. Some of the ‘interviews’ I analysed included short media interviews where a person of interest was stopped on the street and questioned by a journalist with film crew. The most complete interviews made available to me for analysis was that of Mr Denis Briggs which included two police interviews and one interview with Hedley Thomas.
As a prelude before you listen to the podcast, I want to briefly explain how language analysis is used in an investigation, what it means and how it helps an investigator.
The first point to understand is that any conclusion I draw from an analysis of language used in an open statement is not an opinion about whether that person is lying. It is an investigative tool used in an interview or controlled conversation or when reviewing a transcript, email or letter, to help an interviewer identify where someone:
- May not be fully committed to their version of events;
- Is sensitive to the topic requiring further exploration;
- perhaps is withholding information; or
- at the most serious end of the spectrum, may be being deceptive.
In any incident where there are multiple potential suspects, you want to be able to efficiently discount possible suspects from an investigation so you are able to concentrate resources on potential suspects. Language analysis can assist in narrowing down the list of potential suspects and helps focus investigative resources on particular aspects of a person’s version of events to support or rule out their evidence.
In language analysis, one of the most important things that we look for is the use (or non-use) of pronouns such as I, us, we, them, they and our. In particular, the word ‘I’ is an important pronoun as it directly connects someone to an activity or indicates ‘ownership’ of that action. The use of pronouns coupled with a narrative where there is the use by the narrator of first person singular past tense, demonstrates commitment to their version of events.
At the most basic level, when conducting an interview or reading a transcript, I am looking for indications as to whether someone is committed to their version of events. If someone is not fully committed to their own story, why should anyone else believe it?
For the average individual, it is difficult to lie and to maintain a lie when you are asked to tell a version of events and when the subject is sensitive. We tend to be frugal with or omit critical information that might lead to exploratory questions regarding an area of sensitivity or avoid areas that might incriminate us. As an interviewer, I need to be confident that the interviewee is recalling from memory and is something that they have experienced rather than relaying and perhaps adopting something they have heard on radio, television, read in the newspaper or heard second-hand.
In terms of an interviewee, it’s impossible for someone to relay every second of their day. Therefore, a person naturally edits a story in their communication with you, be it verbal or written. As mentioned above, it is very difficult to lie and maintain a lie. If a person is known to have been associated with an event or crime and are not prepared to tell the whole truth, they will typically find a point where they can, in essence, keep a semblance of truth in their story while at the same time being able to distance themselves from the incident. Language analysis helps identify and hone in on these sensitive areas of an open statement during an interview.
It is assumed that there are no synonyms in language analysis and as such, recognising changes in language used is important. I work on the principle that every word by the narrator has a contextual meaning. While there is no problem with a person changing their language and how they refer to things, it is important to be alert to the change as the narrator has subconsciously chosen an alternative word, and this is meaningful. For example, changing your language during an open statement from the word ‘car’ and later saying ‘vehicle’ can have meaning. For me to consider the change to be unimportant, the change needs to be justified in terms of its use and therefore will need to be explored with the narrator.
To conclude, the approach is to examine the language used by a person on the basis that I am trying to find supporting information that may exclude that person as a person of interest. In the alternative, if their statement does not tend to exclude them, I want to identify areas of sensitivity within their statement and further explore these to clarify exactly what they mean.
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