Anonyme Briefe enthalten mehr unbeabsichtigte Hinweise auf ihre Autoren,
als allgemein angenommen

how forensic linguistics can help to identify authors of anonymous letters
Stand: 21.01.2014

Forensic linguistic takes up where Miss Marple left off

The German Tribune, 27. Jg., No. 1327, 19.06.1988

Agatha Christie’s character, Miss Marple, solved the trickiest crimes with a mixture of a knowledge of human nature and powers of deduction.

Criminologists today would fail miserably using these qualities alone. The indispensable tools of a criminologist now are Computers and highly sensitive medical, chemical and technical equipment.

But still criminal investigators do not use all the scientific possibilities available to identify the writers of anonymous letters through textual examination, according to Raimund Drommel, 42, a cologne language expert.

He teaches at the Universities of Cologne and Siegen and, since 1973, has spent a lot of time working on textual examination and what is known as forensic linguistics.

But unlike other disciplines forensic linguistics ekes out a miserable existence in the crime technology world.

Although hardly a day passes in which a department store does not get an anonymous threat or the owner of the company is not block mailed, there is usually far too much delay in using all available analytical methods.

Some years ago a local police chief discovered to his cost that no-one is immune from anonymous accusations.

Over several months, the Land interior ministry and the public prosecutor were inundated with anonymous letters abusing the police chief.

Investigators managed to reduce the number of suspects to a few, but then progressed stopped.

Until they turned to Herr Drommel. His name came up because he had written an article for a specialist magazine.

Drommel got to work on examples of the suspects’ writing, pored over the meagre literature at the beginning of the 1970’s on modern linguistics and came upon a case that was decisive in rehabilitating the police chief and in establishing the identity of the letter writer.

Another case: in October 1952, Dick Helander, a theology professor at Strängnäs in Sweden, was elected bishop. But beforehand, many of the diocesan electors received anonymous letters promoting the cause of Helander and criticising his opponent.

Two language researchers were called in. They analysed the texts of the letters, comparing them for style, use of words, sentence construction and other criteria with documents written by Bishop Helander – and unmasked him as the author. He was dismissed.

Drommel followed up similar “linguistic finger-prints,” tracking down the anonymous author of the letters against the German police chief. It was one of his own officials.

As a police officer the official had got accustomed to using certain expressions in speech and in his writing, which eventually found their way into his private correspondence.

Examination of the written word, which the police and the court have used for some time, is not sufficient to protect the innocent and find out the guilty, according to Raimund Drommel.

The writer and author of a text are not necessary the same person. The victim of a crime can be forced to write a letter, that would exonerate the criminal.

Only a systematic comparison of such a letter with other writings of the person concerned can show that this is what has happened.

This occurred in the case of a young girl who was kidnapped near Cologne. Shortly before her violent death she wrote two letters, in which the two main suspects were exonerated – they are now on trial before the Bonn district court.

Drommel discovered that the woman was forced to write the letters.

One of many factors that led to this conclusion was that on examining 600,000 words in her private correspondence one certain word did not appear once. One of the present accused, however, used this expression regularly.

Drommel believes that it is imperative to make better use than has been done until now of language analysis in a time of personal computers. More and more black-mail letters are produced on computers.

A slipped A on an old typewriter no longer reveals the identity of a wrongdoer, as it did in Miss Marple’s day.

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