Read about forensic transcription

This page links to several published articles — categorised as introductory and advanced, legal and scientific. You might prefer to listen – and indeed the multimedia experience really helps in appreciating the issues of forensic transcription. Check out some of the podcasts in In the Media (right sidebar). Or try one of the video presentations (top menu).

Some short introductions: popular, scientific, legal

Burridge, K. 2017. The dark side of mondegreens: how a simple mishearing can lead to wrongful conviction. The Conversation

We are all familiar with mondegreens. They’re what turns for all intents and purposes into for all intensive purposes or an all-staff email into an all-star female. Mondegreens can be hilarious. But they have a darker side too.

By the brilliant, renowned and always entertaining Professor Kate Burridge.

Fraser, H. 2019. Don’t believe your ears: ‘Enhancing’ forensic audio can mislead juries in criminal trialsThe Conversation

Many criminal trials feature forensic evidence in the form of audio recordings. Unfortunately, the audio is often of very poor quality (example). Australian (and other) courts allow the jury to be given an “enhanced” version to assist their hearing. You might now be eager to hear the enhanced version of the audio you just listened to.

Fraser, H. 2013. Covert recordings as evidence in court: the return of police “verballing?” The Conversation

Around the same time as mandatory recording of police interviews put an end to ‘fabricated confessions’ , other reforms were inadvertently giving police a new way to “put words in suspects’ mouths” – this time without even needing a conscious intention to do so.

French, P., & Fraser, H. 2018. Why “ad hoc experts” should not provide transcripts of indistinct forensic audio, and a proposal for a better approach. Criminal Law Journal, 42, 298–302.

Indistinct covert audio recordings frequently figure in criminal trials together with transcripts prepared by police officers who have been accorded the status of ad hoc experts on the basis of their prolonged and repeated exposure to the recordings. Drawing on research in linguistic and phonetic science, we explain why such transcripts are highly prone to be unreliable, why they may mislead juries into misinterpreting the contents of the conversations and why current court procedures for mitigating this risk are inadequate. We conclude by outlining a proposal drawn up and endorsed by senior expert linguists for establishing a process whereby reliable transcripts of indistinct covert recordings can be provided for juries.

Fraser, H. 2017. Real forensic experts should pay more attention to the dangers posed by “ad hoc experts” (Guest Editorial). Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 50:2, 125-128.

Recent years have seen a great deal of attention given to the reliability of expert evidence admit-ted in criminal trials. However, almost no attention has been given to the reliability of evidence provided by so-called ‘ad hoc experts’. Indeed, many forensic scientists seem unaware that such a category of witness even exists, much less of the substantial threats they pose to the fairness of our criminal justice system.

Fraser, H. 2018. Covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials: concerns of Australian linguists. Judicial Officers’ Bulletin, 30(6), 53–56.

Procedures for using covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials have developed over 30 years. However, some key aspects have only recently come to the attention of academic experts in linguistic science. This paper outlines the concerns of two peak organisations representing Australian linguists in relation to: transcription of indistinct speech, translation of material in languages other than English, attribution of utterances to speakers, and enhancing of poor quality audio.

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Some longer pieces (still non-technical)

Fraser, H. 2017. How interpretation of indistinct covert recordings can lead to wrongful conviction: A case study and recommendations for reform. In R. Levy, et al. (eds.), New directions for law in Australia: Essays in contemporary law reform (pp. 191–200). Canberra: ANU Press.

Legal practice regarding the use of indistinct covert recordings in trials has evolved haphazardly over the past 30 years, with no consultation of phonetic science. This has resulted in a number of anomalies, notably the fact that detectives are allowed (as ‘ad hoc experts’) to present their own transcripts of indistinct audio to ‘assist’ the jury in interpreting the audio evidence. This chapter2 highlights problems with this practice via a case study of a murder conviction obtained on the basis of a demonstrably inaccurate police transcript, then suggests directions for reform.

Fraser, H. 2017. ‘Assisting’ listeners to hear words that aren’t there: Dangers in using police transcripts of indistinct covert recordings. Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences

A new experiment using an indistinct covert recording from a real murder trial, designed to examine the effects of priming participants with a made-up phrase that vaguely fits the acoustics of one section of the recording. Results indicate that a very high proportion of listeners are easily ‘assisted’ to ‘hear’ the made-up phrase. Discussion argues that audio of this quality should only be used as evidence if accompanied by a reliable independent transcript.

Fraser, H. 2018. ‘Enhancing’ forensic audio: false beliefs and their effect in criminal trials. Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Indistinct covert recordings admitted as evidence in criminal trials are routinely ‘enhanced’ to assist a jury in making out their contents. But just what is ‘enhancing’, and how effective is it? This paper uses two short experiments to demonstrate that a subjective impression that‘enhancing’ has made the audio ‘clearer’ does not necessarily indicate there has been an objective improvement in intelligibility. It then outlines, in a non-technical manner, the capabilities and limitations of various ‘enhancing’ techniques, and discusses implications in relation to current legal practice.

By Source, Fair use.

Fraser, H. in press. ‘Enhancing’ forensic audio: What if all that really gets enhanced is the credibility of a misleading transcript?

A new experiment adds weight and detail to previous demonstrations that enhancing can make audio ‘sound clearer’ without making it more reliably intelligible. It further demonstrates how ‘enhancing’ can interact with priming to make phrases suggested by a transcript seem more plausible than they do in the original, even when the suggestion is unreliable and misleading. Discussion recommends the courts should insist on far better regulation of the use of ‘enhanced’ audio.

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Some advanced research: Legal

Fraser, H. 2018. Thirty years is long enough: It’s time to create a process that ensures covert recordings used as evidence in court are interpreted reliably and fairly. Journal of Judicial Administration. 

This paper outlines a number of serious problems arising from the handling within the legal process of covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials. The paper traces the problems back to the landmark High Court judgment of Butera 1987, and attributes them to insufficient understanding within the judiciary of well-established but counter-intuitive findings of linguistic science regarding factors that affect the reliable interpretation of recorded speech. Several possible solutions to the problems are canvassed, and it is recommended that the most promising way forward is via enhanced communication and collaboration between law, law enforcement and linguistic science.

Advanced research: Scientific

Fraser, H. 2014. Transcription of indistinct forensic recordings: Problems and solutions from the perspective of phonetic science. Language and Law/Linguagem E Direito, 1(2), 5–21.

Covert recordings (speech captured on audio or video without the knowledge of the speakers) can provide powerful forensic evidence. Unfortunately, however, since it is difficult to control their recording conditions, covert recordings are often indistinct, to the extent the speech is unintelligible to listeners who do not already have knowledge or expectations about their content. This raises the question of how to present the speech evidence in court so that the trier of fact (jury, magistrate, judge, etc.) can make use of the information contained in the recording. In many jurisdictions, the answer is to have a transcript made by those who know the context (typically police working on the case), and provided to the trier of fact as an aid to perception of the speech. The present article outlines several problems with this approach, then suggests some solutions that allow maximal value of the intelligence contained in covert recordings, while reducing the risk of injustice through biased perception of indistinct audio. A key part of the suggested solution is to make a clear distinction between investigative and evidentiary uses of indistinct covert recordings, and to ensure that transcripts of evidentiary recordings be produced by professional transcribers independent of the case.

Fraser, H. 2018. Forensic transcription: How confident false beliefs about language and speech threaten the right to a fair trial in Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics. 

Everyday knowledge about language and speech, or ‘folk linguistics’, incorporates a number of false beliefs that have a negative effect in a range of areas, nowhere more so than in the criminal justice system (e.g. Solan, Ainsworth, & Shuy, 2015). One lesser known area where false beliefs have a major impact is forensic transcription (interpretation of indistinct covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials). Without consultation of the linguistic sciences, the law has developed processes that allow police transcripts to ‘assist’ the courts in making out unintelligible covert recordings (see Fraser, 2017c). The present article uses a case study of a real murder trial to bring the actual and potential injustice this creates to the attention of linguistic science, and examine the issues from a linguistics perspective. Having laid out the problem, it goes on to consider potential solutions, arguing that creating a better process requires deep collaboration between linguistics, law and law enforcement. From linguists, it requires improved theoretical understanding of the nature and structure of the false beliefs that underlie the existing legal processes, as well as development of a more general theoretical account of the process of transcription and the nature of transcripts.

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