Plenary session at the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences

Covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials

Problems and solutions from the perspective of forensic phonetics

SPEAKER: Dr Helen Fraser

Summary: Covert recordings are collected during investigation of most major crimes, providing vital intelligence to detectives. Some are also used as forensic evidence in court: it is here that major problems can arise. Covert recordings are often very indistinct, and can easily be misinterpreted. In one colourful example, ‘he died after wank off’ was shown to be a mishearing of ‘he died after one cough’ (French and Stevens 2006). Over the past thirty years, the law has developed practices intended to overcome anomalies like this, and ensure juries reach a reliable interpretation of what is said, and who says it, in forensic audio.

The problem is that the practices have evolved with no consultation of the language sciences. They are not effective, creating actual and potential injustice. The current presentation demonstrates, with troubling case studies, issues in: translation of non-English material; transcription of indistinct English; ‘enhancing’ of unintelligible audio; attribution of utterances to speakers. It then outlines steps currently being taken by Australian linguistics organisations to remedy these problems. Background and preview information is available via

Find a video of the talk at this link (34 mins)

Biography: Dr Helen Fraser is a former university lecturer in phonetics (the science of speech), currently an independent researcher specialising in cognitive and forensic phonetics. In recent years she has taken an active lead in seeking reform in the handling of covert recordings used as evidence in court. See

WEDNESDAY February 14th 2018 at 6.00pm

Further information from Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences

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