911 Call Analysis Used to Convict Man of Murder

A recent television series documented a case in the United States revolving around a man accused of murdering his wife. In the criminal case, the prosecution used testimony from an expert witness to claim that the man staged the 911 call and was actually himself the murderer. He was convicted based on the testimony of a sergeant who interpreted the 911 call as being staged. A jury convicted the man on that basis.

The basis for the witness’s testimony is a little-known method of lie detection promulgated by police departments and the FBI. According to these departments, you can tell if a person is lying by interpreting linguistic cues and stress in their voice. Of course, there is little scientific basis for this, and there has been no testing to determine the veracity of these claims. That’s not the problem, however.

In most cases, we would laud anyone who wanted to endeavor to determine if there was any method to determine if someone was lying by studying their vocal cues. That’s not what’s happening here, however. Instead, the police departments are assuming that they can do this without subjecting their procedures to peer review. Even those most familiar with the theory have publicly stated it should not be used to convict individuals. Nonetheless, there have been 100 cases (at least) throughout the U.S. in which 911 call analysis or vocal stress interpretation.

What Happened?

It is every graduate student’s dream come true. You go to school to pursue your interest, you have exciting new research, you publish an article that is an exploratory article meant to invite more research, and everyone assumes you’ve hit a gold mine. That is exactly what happened here. The research was barely out of its nascent stages when it was adopted by police departments all across the country as the gospel truth.

Scientifically, there is no merit to the theory at all, and it is not the first to attempt lie detection using linguistic analysis. The fact is that much smarter people who have dedicated their entire lives to linguistics have yet to reach any conclusions on a uniform method of determining a lie. The theory holds that a misplaced, “Huh” or “Please” indicates the presence of a lie. It also presumes that all people operate in accordance with uniform software. It is not just that the theory has a lack of research surrounding it. It is more like the theory is a garbage variation of something better that already exists, but it is making superior claims to real linguistics.

Ultimately, the police department knows the science is not real, the prosecutors who use it in their cases know it is not real, and there is a paper trail of correspondence between prosecutors to prove they know it is not real. 

The FBI has issued memorandums using exploratory research to establish a “science” for lie detection. It is the latest in a failed enterprise to determine if someone is lying. A 2020 study attempting to apply the methods independently failed miserably to reproduce actionable results. It is unlikely this will stop departments from using call analysis in the future or even presenting in naive courtrooms across the country. 

Talk to a Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney

Often, defendants have no idea that they could accidentally trigger suspicion on them because they said “Huh” at the wrong time while speaking to the dispatcher. But interactions with law enforcement are always dangerous. Call David Freidberg today to schedule an appointment and learn more about how we can help. 

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