The Linguist

The Linguist 59,3 - June/July 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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8 The Linguist Vol/59 No/3 2020 FEATURES Michael O'Laughlin offers his insights into the vital work of the expert witness, where linguistic analysis can mean the difference between an innocent and a guilty verdict I work as an expert witness in the courts of Massachusetts, USA. I am in demand because I have found a niche in which language issues come quickly to the fore. I was a court interpreter for most of my life, and I am also the Director of Interpreter Training at Boston University. I realised that I could combine my interpreter experience, academic position and scholarly training at Oxford and Harvard to qualify as an expert in foreign languages and cultures. I invented this job and only found out later that there is a field called Forensic Linguistics. I promoted myself by teaching classes on language and culture problems for attorneys. In the US, defence lawyers have a listserv where they give each other tips, and there is also an office with a list of experts. Positive reviews there made me well known. In most of my cases there has been a misunderstanding of some sort. Either the police assumed someone could speak English, or something critical was said in a foreign language, or someone did something that might not be a crime where they come from, but is in the US. I study a case, interview the client, write a report and testify in court. The courtrooms I work in are usually crowded, and the atmosphere is formal and sometimes intense. The law, in action, is counterintuitive and inefficient. Because of the overarching requirement of due process, there is no immediate focus on the main issues. Instead, there are steps such as the arraignment (the formal reading of the criminal charges in court) and discovery (the exposition of proof). These steps are on different dates at least a month or two apart. I usually testify in evidentiary motions. In Anglo-American jurisprudence there are two sides trying to have their way, and an expert is automatically on one side and opposed to the other. In court, it is normal for me to spend hours waiting to find out what will happen. As I wait, I memorise the facts of the case or consult with the attorney about which questions I should be asked. Witnesses are not allowed to present their evidence! They can only answer questions. My testimony can last an hour and rarely more than four. We cover my credentials, any language testing and my opinions on the case. That is the primary function of an expert: to render an opinion based on a proper foundation. After I am questioned by the defence attorney, the district attorney begins cross-examination, which seeks to show that I am not qualified and/or that my conclusions are unwarranted. TYPES OF EVIDENCE In many of my cases, the evidence consists of statements or material in Spanish or Portuguese, as these are the most widely spoken languages in Massachusetts after English. Here is an example: in the sad case of Commonwealth vs. Raymond Collazo, a five-month-old infant died and his father was suspected of shaking him, not only because of the injuries, but also because he referred to the baby not as his son or by his name, but as 'the kid'. One detective found this so jarring that she told Mr Collazo not to call him that. This is what I learnt: Mr Collazo is from Puerto Rico and his English, although adequate, showed considerable Spanish interference. When he said 'the kid' he was thinking el nene. I prepared a detailed report on the use BEYOND DOUBT IMAGES © SHUTTERSTOCK

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