Friday, March 30, 2007

Will Her Grammar Hang Her?

Check out this unbelievable news story from the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

Murder trial studies the defendant's grammar

Forensic linguist ties wife of dismembered man to anonymous notes to cops
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

When Melanie McGuire wrote notes to friends, she made grammatical mistakes similar to errors found in anonymously written letters aimed at making police believe someone else killed and dismembered her husband, an FBI specialist testified yesterday.

Forensic linguist James Fitzgerald told a Superior Court jury in Middlesex County he compared McGuire's notes with the anonymous writings and determined both overused commas, misused dashes and quotation marks, substituted "w/" for the word "with" and used a plus sign instead of the word "and."

In addition, one of the anonymous letters refers to a prosecuting attorney as "Madame Asst Att General," while in a telephone conversation McGuire referred to the same woman as "madame deputy attorney general," the FBI witness said.

The prosecution contends the anonymous letters, which taunted authorities on their investigative abilities, contained information only the killer would know.

McGuire is accused of drugging, shooting and dismembering her husband, William McGuire, 39, in their Woodbridge townhouse on April 28, 2004. The victim's remains were wrapped in plastic trash bags and placed in three matching suitcases that were dumped in the Chesapeake Bay, according to testimony.

Assistant Attorney General Patricia Prezioso says McGuire killed her husband because she was having an affair with a doctor at a Morristown fertility clinic where they both worked.

McGuire, who denies any role in the slaying, sat attentively throughout the testimony yesterday, taking notes and conferring with her defense team. They say police wrongly focused on the nurse and ignored clues that would have led them to the killer.

Key testimony yesterday came from Fitzgerald, who specializes in criminal forensic linguistics, which analyzes documents by comparing idiosyncrasies in language and grammar.

It's a sometimes-controversial field that has been used in several high-profile cases with varying results. Forensic linguists, led by Fitzgerald, helped determine a 300-page manuscript found in Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin was similar to a 35,000-word manifesto written by the Unabomber, who sent bombs in the mail that killed three people and maimed 29. But forensic linguists have also failed, perhaps most famously in their efforts to determine the author of the ransom note left in murder victim JonBenet Ramsey's Colorado house.

"It's one part art, one part science," said Alan Perlman, a forensic linguist who has been practicing since 1979. "It's no less a science than fingerprinting or any other forensic skill."

Perlman said certain traits, like the use of an unusual word or obscure dialect, can make a positive identification relatively easy.

Yet others question how reliable the field is, particularly in the area of "author identification," in which a text by a known writer is compared with an anonymous one.

"I wouldn't take on an authorship-identification case," said Roger Shuy, who has written 30 books on linguistics, including six on forensic linguistics. "I will look at a document, and I'll tell you what I see. But I could never get on a witness stand."

One problem, Shuy said, is the lack of certainty it allows: If one text has 65 percent of a feature while another text has 50 percent of it, are they really similar?

Other problems can arise when the texts being compared are brief. Whereas the Unabomber left thousands of pages for analysis, most cases offer significantly less.

"The smaller amount of known writing you have, the harder it is to detect authorship," said Janet Ainsworth, a professor at Seattle University Law School who specializes in forensic linguistics. "Even 50 pages is pretty slim."

One of the anonymous letters being analyzed in the McGuire case is four pages long. In a pretrial hearing, Superior Court Judge Frederick DeVesa ruled Fitzgerald, the FBI specialist, could not offer the jury a definitive conclusion about who wrote the letter.

He was only allowed to testify as to similarities between McGuire's writings to friends and a collection of anonymous notes and letters sent to authorities.

On cross-examination by the defense, Fitzgerald said McGuire's notes made other grammatical errors, such as using the word "to" in place of "too," that did not appear in any of the anonymous writings. He said those mistakes were not significant because authors will not consistently use the same words when they write.

But Fitzgerald agreed during questioning by Stephen Turano, a Newark defense attorney, the use of "madame" -- used in both anonymous writings and one of McGuire's telephone conversations recorded by State Police -- was proper usage.

In other testimony yesterday, Thomas Lesniak, a forensic scientist, linked the plastic trash bags that contained William McGuire's remains to plastic trash bags that came from the couple's Woodbridge townhouse, and to a bag recovered from the Barnegat home of Melanie McGuire's mother and stepfather, Linda and Michael Cappararo.

Lesniak said he held the black bags up to the light, studied the patterns created during the manufacture of the bags and concluded they all were made by the same machinery.

Lesniak also told the jury he examined more than 200 pieces of evidence, including tiny bits of human tissue, which were swept from the floor of William McGuire's car after he was killed.

Prosecutors say the flesh was tracked into the car after the victim's wife dismembered him and drove the vehicle to Atlantic City. The defense contends the particles represent skin cells that normally would have been shed by William McGuire when he drove.

The trial resumes this morning in New Brunswick.

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