Forensic Voices

Project

Overview

Our current work investigates the ability of lay speakers to describe voices, and methods of improving the quality and accuracy of such descriptions. Current projects involve collaboration with colleagues in Psychology (Dr Harriet Smith, Nottingham Trent University) and Law (Jeremy Robson, De Montfort University) to examine earwitness testimony.

In cases where witnesses hear a perpetrator’s voice, but do not clearly see their face, they may be required to provide voice identification evidence at criminal trials. Voice identification evidence is error-prone, but can be decisive in court.

Addressing the Challenge

We know voice identification evidence can be problematic, but can be decisive in court (Robson, 2017). In order to reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice, the police must record a detailed witness description of the voice at the earliest opportunity. Overall, little research has addressed characteristics of voice quality descriptions by lay listeners. In comparison to faces, memory for voices is more subject to disruption and interference and evidence suggests voices are difficult to describe, and descriptions by lay listeners risk being characterised by subjectivity and variability between listeners.

Voice descriptions by lay listeners are important at various stages of the legal process, such as narrowing down a list of suspects, selecting foils for a voice parade, or assessing the consistency of the witness’ subsequent evidence. England and Wales is the only common law jurisdiction in which guidelines for eliciting earwitness evidence exist. Despite recognising the importance of a detailed first description of the perpetrator’s voice, the guidelines do not explain how it should be obtained.

We are working with police and legal teams to devise an evidence-based procedure to tackle this international problem.

People

Dr Natalie Braber is Associate Professor in Linguistics. Her main interests are in the fields of sociolinguistics and language variation. These subject areas can be divided into more specific research interests, for example:

  • Accents and dialects
  • Language and identity
  • Perceptual Dialectology
  • Forensic Voices

Dr Harriet Smith is an Independent Research Fellow in Psychology at NTU. Harriet is currently working on a number of projects relating to identity discrimination in forensic and security settings. These projects focus on:

  • Voice parade procedures
  • Novel face matching procedures
  • Forensic voice discrimination

Dr David Wright is a lecturer in Linguistics at NTU. He is a forensic linguist and his research explores the application of language analysis to help improve the delivery of justice. His current research projects span across a range of intersections between language and the law, evidence, crime and justice. His research applies methods of corpus linguistics and discourse analysis in forensic contexts.

Jeremy Robson is Senior Lecturer at Leicester De Montfort Law School. His research interests include:

  • Interdisciplinary approaches to criminal litigation and evidence
  • Criminal Law
  • The Practice and Teaching of Advocacy

Making a Difference

Further research is in progress to examine in more detail the extent of variation in accents and dialects around the East Midlands, and how these accents are perceived. It is hoped that this research will result in increased understanding of language in the region and to ensure that this work is part of academic and non-academic dissemination. This work is currently ongoing and is being presented at conferences and prepared for publication.

Publications

  • Natalie Braber and Jonnie Robinson (2018) East Midlands English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Natalie Braber and Sandra Jansen (Eds.) (2018) Sociolinguistics in England. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Natalie Braber (2018) Performing identity on screen: Language, identity, and humour in Scottish television comedy. In: R. Bassiouney (ed.) Dialect and identity performance. London: Routledge, 265-285.
  • Natalie Braber and Diane Davies (2016) Using and creating oral history in dialect research. Oral History 44(1), 98-107.
  • Natalie Braber (2016) Dialect perception and identification in Nottingham. In: J. Cramer and C. Montgomery (eds.) Cityscapes and Perceptual Dialectology: Global Perspectives on Non-Linguists’ Knowledge of the Dialect Landscape. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 209-231.
  • Natalie Braber; Louise Cummings and Liz Morrish (Eds.) (2015) Exploring Language and Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Natalie Braber (2015) Nottinghamshire Dialect. Sheffield: Bradwell Books.
  • Natalie Braber (2015) Sociolinguistics. In: N. Braber; L. Cummings and L. Morrish (eds.) Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 274-298.
  • Natalie Braber & Nicholas Flynn (2015) ‘The East Midlands: Nottingham’. In R. Hickey (ed.) Researching Northern Englishes. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 369-392.
  • Natalie Braber (2015) Language perception in the East Midlands. English Today 31(1), 16-26.
  • Natalie Braber (2014). The concept of identity in the East Midlands of England. English Today 30(2), 3-10.

Funding

  • ‘Developing a procedure for eliciting accurate, detailed, and consistent forensic voice descriptions from lay witnesses’. (British Academy Small Grant, £9,722)
  • ‘Methods of assessing the accuracy of accent judgements by lay listeners’ (Safety and Security Funding, NTU, £13,282)
  • ‘Language and identity in law and evidence’ (British Association of Applied Linguistics, £1,500).

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