The Unabomber Case: Foundation of Forensic Linguistics

The term Forensic Linguistics was coined by Jan Svartvik, a linguistics professor, in 1968. Forensic linguistics is the application of linguistic knowledge, research and methodology, to the field of law, which essentially includes evaluation of written evidence and the language of legislation. It is a branch of applied linguistics. One of the main goals of forensic linguistics is to furnish a careful and systemic analysis of language. Different professionals in different areas can use the results. For example, police officers can use it for interviewing witnesses and solving crimes more efficiently. Translators and interpreters can use this research to communicate with greater accuracy.

Furthermore, forensic linguistics can also be used to convict and capture the guilty and protect the innocent. An excellent connotation of the same is the written, fixed-form text that educates the person arrested of his rights and protections under the law. In the United States, this text is called 'Miranda Warnings.'

Applications of forensic linguistics include voice and authorship identification, forensic stylistics, discourse analysis, linguistic dialectology, and forensic phonetics. There are different kinds of forensic texts like an emergency call, random demands or other threat communication, suicide letters, death row statements, and social media statements that can be examined and scrutinised using forensic linguistics.

Forensic linguistics is divided broadly into two: written language and spoken language. A forensic linguist can examine the former in many different forms like phone messages, notes, handwritten letters, and posts on social media, while the latter focuses not only on what was said but also on the way it was said.

The Unabomber Case

The Unabomber is the sobriquet given to the domestic terrorist named Ted Kaczynski, who was active between 1970 to 1996 and responsible for a series of mail bomb attacks for 17 years, targeting academicians and business executives and others. In total, his bombings had killed three people and had injured 23 people.

Ted Kaczynski lived as a recluse in a remote cabin without electricity or running water outside Lincoln, Montana, since 1971. He was also the author of a 35,000-word manifesto entitled "Industrial Society and its Future." In his manifesto, he argued that "technology had led human beings away from nature and towards, what he called, "surrogate activities", such as popular entertainment and sports. He called for human beings to return to what he described as "wild nature." In his view, this included an end to all scientific research."

After he sent his manifesto to multiple newspapers and television stations, in the form of several letters, he vowed to stop his attacks if it was published, in total, in a major newspaper. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published the manifesto, in its entirety, in September of 1995. However, he was arrested seven months later, in April of 1996, which was nearly a year after his last admitted bombing.

It was forensic linguistics that captured the infamous Unabomber. One of the reasons Ted Kaczynski kept escaping the FBI's radar was his intellectual quotient and articulating expressions in his letters. In addition to that, he was cautious in constructing and sending the bombs, leaving no DNA evidence whatsoever. It took the FBI nine years and millions of dollars to apprehend someone they knew nothing about or even had a good profile of.

A Wildly Misunderstood Field

A substantial complication that the field of forensic linguists faces relates to language and how the word "linguist" is used. It can have two non-technical interpretations. One interpretation is that a linguist means a person who can speak different languages, and another is that the person is specifically eloquent in his speech or writing. However, these non-technical interpretations get easily amalgamated with the academic discipline of linguistics.

Widespread unfamiliarity and ignorance of the vitality of forensic linguistics has resulted in many egregious and appalling miscarriages of justice in the history of Australia.

People who speak English as an additional language sometimes do not know their legal rights in situations like police interviews, and casual conversations about the weather and family are not suitable for language fluency. For instance, in 2018, the Western Australia Court of Appeal invalidated the conviction of Gene Gibson for manslaughter. Gene Gibson was an aboriginal man for whom English was a third language. The police interviewed him without an interpreter, assuming that there was no need to assess Gibson's English fluency. This neglect resulted in Gene Gibson spending nearly five years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Role of Forensic Linguistics in Apprehension of Unabomber

Ted Kaczynski had a very articulate vocabulary and used outdated vernacular; this gave FBI profiler James Fitzgerald the idea to use linguistics to catch him. According to Mr Fitzgerald, by using clues in the letters of the Unabomber, the FBI would be able to create a much more robust profile. Moreover, the word choice of the Unabomber also hinted at his age. There were some unique language characteristics, some archaic terms like 'broad' and 'chick' to denote women. He had used the word 'negro' to refer to African-Americans. In 1995, these words were virtually similar to the Frank Sinatra language or equivalent to a 50s movie.

Moreover, this abnormal and atypical vernacular helped Mr Fitzgerald to pinpoint the age of the author. The trail was going cold until 1995 when the Unabomber contacted the New York Times and the Washington Post about publishing his dystopian, 35,000-word manifesto. At Mr Fitzgerald's urging, the manifesto was eventually published, hoping that someone would recognise the writing style.

David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, was shown the manifesto by his wife, and he immediately recognised the writing style. David sent the FBI a similar piece of writing he had received from his brother many years ago.

According to Mr Fitzgerald, there was one particular phrase that stuck out. Ted Kaczynski had used "eat your cake and have it too" in a letter to the manifesto and David Kaczynski's outline to the FBI. The conventional wisdom would point out that the phrase was supposed to be inverted, "you can't have your cake and eat it too". However, how Ted Kaczynski used the phrase proved correct as this inversion had happened when the language evolved from Middle English.

With the help of David Kaczynski, the FBI tracked down Ted Kaczynski in Montana. However, a warrant to search Ted Kaczynski's cabin was required. The judge, in the case, was hesitant to issue the warrant solely using forensic linguistics as a means since it had never been done before, and there was neither a precedent for the same nor any real experts to corroborate the findings of Mr Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, the warrant was ultimately signed. The FBI raided Ted Kaczynski's cabin. They found smoking guns, bomb-making materials, a manual typewriter, and White's Element of Style, the same style used for writing the manifesto. Additional analysis at the University of Michigan added linguistic evidence to the case and furthered his 'linguistic fingerprint', which the investigators used to tie him to the crimes.

After all the evidence was organised and arranged against him, Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Moreover, James Fitzgerald went on to become the first forensic linguist in the FBI.

Since this Unabomber case, forensic linguistics has become a crucial part of the procedure of crime-solving. However, it has also helped solve wiretap cases, identify ransom notes, text, tweet, and email authors, and even solve a murder.

Landmark Cases

The Lindbergh Kidnapping: In 1932, a 20-month-old son of a famous aviator named Charles Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped. Even after paying a ransom of $50,000, the 20-month-old child was never returned and was murdered. The authorities tracked the circulation of the bills used in the ransom payment, which led them to Bruno Hauptmann, who had over $14,000 in his garage. Mr Hauptmann claimed that the money belonged to a friend. However, critical testimony from handwriting analysts revealed that his handwriting matched with that on the ransom notes. Additional forensic research was conducted, which later connected the wood in the attic of Mr Hauptmann to the wood used in the ladder made to reach and enter the child's bedroom. In 1936, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted and executed.

The Atlanta Child Murders: Between 1979 and 1981, a serial killer had strangled 29 children. The police staked out and observed the river where other bodies had been dumped and arrested Wayne Williams as he was driving away from the sound of a splash in the area. Since the police did not witness him dropping the body, their case was primarily focused on forensic evidence. Moreover, the evidence that connected him to the murders was traces of 30 types of fibres found on the victims, linked to several items from Wayne's house, including his vehicles and his dog. In 1982, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Howard Hughes Hoax: In 1970, authors Clifford Irving and Richard Suskind cooked up a scheme to forge an autobiography of Howard Hughes, a notorious, eccentric and reclusive billionaire. Their primary assumption was that Hughes would never come forth to denounce the book, so Irving went to a publisher asserting that Hughes had approached him to write his autobiography and that he was willing to communicate with the author only. As proof, Irving produced fake letters and claimed that they were from Hughes. The publisher agreed to publish the book and paid $765,000 for the right to publish the book. When the news was made public, Hughes contacted some journalists and reporters to make the book fake and false. Since Hughes was reclusive, he would communicate with the journalists and reporters through telephone only.

Therefore, a "spectrographic voiceprint analysis" measures the speaker's tone, pitch, and volume was conducted to ensure whether the speaker was indeed Howard Hughes. The voice analyst was able to identify the speaker as Howard Hughes successfully. Thus, Irving was exposed. He confessed that the book was forged for nefarious purposes, for which he was sentenced to 17 months, and Suskind was sentenced to 5 months.

The BTK Killer: The BTK stands for "Bind, Torture, Kill". This serial killer terrorised an area in Kansas. This serial killer was active between the years 1974 and 1991 and murdered a total of 10 people. The killer craved media attention, and therefore, sent letters to local newspapers and TV stations. However, his craving and egoism became the causes of his apprehension. In 2004, when he rematerialised with a series of communications, he opted to dispatch a computer floppy disk. Forensic analysts traced the expunged data on the disk to a man named Dennis Rader. When the police arrested Dennis Rader, he confessed. He was convicted for killing and terrorising and was sentenced to nine life terms in prison.


Forensic linguistics is a vast and branched field that has applications in the field of law. According to eminent forensic linguist Mr Robert Shuy, linguistic expertise in copyright law, intellectual property law, malpractice cases, civil litigation, probate litigation, criminal litigation, contract law, and labour law can prove valuable to an attorney.

In India, forensic linguistics can modernise and sophisticate our investigation, and the practice of such linguistic techniques can be used to enhance the Right to Fair Trial. Furthermore, the scope of Forensic Linguistics concerning investigation, trial and interpretation of the law is significant in Indian situations.


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