The Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis is the umbrella entity serving as the research, internship, and special projects arm of the Program in “Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics” at Hofstra University.
Robert Leonard, Director of the Institute
Tammy Gales, Director of Research
Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project
The project works to reanalyze capital cases in which language evidence played a crucial role in the defendant's conviction and sentence of death.
To use the scientific analysis of language to advance the cause of justice in the application of law.
Linguistics is the science of language analysis. Language is key in the judicial system of the U.S. and many other nations. Through language we promulgate laws, issue subpoenas and warrants, question suspects, give testimony, write contracts, confess, claim, and deny. Attorneys use language to write briefs, make opening and closing arguments, and question and cross-examine witnesses. Judges issue orders, write decisions, and charge juries. Law enforcement personnel interview, interrogate, and collect wire-tap and other language data as evidence. Just as biology and physics play crucial roles in the interpretation of forensic medical data, linguistics enables a deeper understanding of forensic language phenomena.
The Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis conducts original research, accepts outside assignments, and provides internship opportunities for graduate and advanced undergraduate students at Hofstra. A prime feature of the Hofstra program is real-world experience through internships. Hofstra students learn how to apply theory to the real world.
The Institute supervises two types of internships.
- The Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project in 2014 began formally accepting cases through the offices of Eric M. Freedman, the Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights at Hofstra. Forensic linguistic interns, supervised by Dr. Leonard and Dr. Juliane Ford, work with Law School interns, supervised by Professor Freedman, in analyzing the evidence and appeal possibilities in capital cases in which language evidence – typically a recorded conversation, an interrogation, or a confession – played a crucial role in a defendant’s conviction and death sentence.
- The Institute also accepts a small number of pro bono cases that do not fit the death penalty parameter required by the Forensic Linguistics Innocence Project. Forensic linguistic interns assist Dr. Leonard in the analysis of language evidence in these cases, which, for example, might include cases of unknown authorship, jury selection voir dires, trademark, and language crimes such as perjury and solicitation to murder. Recently, Hofstra interns and their faculty spent eight months helping investigators in the South as they tracked a suspected serial killer who was suspected of staging her victims’ suicides to cover the murders. The teams’ analysis revealed that the purported suicide note of one of the victims was far more likely to have been authored by the suspected killer than the victim.
The Institute administers research in the areas of discourse analysis and corpus linguistics.
In conjunction with graduate courses taught at Hofstra, students, working under the supervision of Dr. Gales utilize language data for such purposes as analyzing the language of false vs. true confessions and creating and analyzing comparison corpora for authorship cases.
Dr. Robert Leonard, director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics, is one of the world’s leading experts in this growing field of study that is increasingly being used by legal professionals, law enforcement, and the intelligence community in the U.S. and around the world.
Robert Leonard is "one of the foremost language detectives in the country" says The New Yorker Magazine.
Dr. Robert Leonard is Professor of Linguistics, Director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis, and of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra. He heads the innovative Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project. A Fulbright Fellow for his doctoral work at Columbia University, Leonard has consulted for the FBI and police, counterterrorism, and intelligence agencies throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., as well as many defense teams. Other clients include Apple Inc., Facebook, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force. Leonard’s testimony has been pivotal in investigating and prosecuting several high profile cases, including the JonBenet Ramsey murder, death threats to judges and U.S. Congress members, and the triple homicide of the Coleman family in Illinois.
Hofstra University offers a Master of Arts in Linguistics with specialization in the cutting-edge science of forensic linguistics — the first program of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Professor Robert Leonard is widely credited for growing and promoting this field of study in the U.S. and abroad.
In addition to heading Hofstra's Forensic Linguistics Institute and linguistics programs, Dr. Leonard teaches Swahili, the language of his doctoral dissertation research. A favorite among students, Dr. Leonard was voted one year by graduating seniors as “Teacher of the Year” in Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He was also chosen by the University to give the Distinguished Faculty Lecture.
In an interview, Dr. Leonard said, “I think the most important thing you learn in forensic linguistics and in any liberal art is how to learn. You are introduced to a new field, a new set of variables, and are able to combine that with your own information and own world view to solve problems.”
He has trained the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico and special units in the U.K. and Canada. Dr. Leonard has worked as Apple’s linguist and consulted to the Prime Minister of Canada, the New York State Protective Services, and given talks around the world.
In addition, Dr. Leonard has served as a forensic linguistics consultant for an array of popular media, and in many different forms. He collaborated with author Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist and producer of the TV series Bones (based on her life), to create a forensic linguistics plotline and create a character, Rob Potter, based on Leonard himself in her bestseller Bones to Ashes. (It reached No. 3 on The New York Times “Hardcover Fiction” list). Dr. Leonard has advised the TV show Elementary, and many other writers, devising forensic linguistic cases and solutions in their work. He is currently working on a series of young adult forensic linguistics novels under contract to the literary agent who handles the Hunger Games book franchise.
Dr. Leonard has been called on to train intelligence and counterintelligence agents from Quantico to L.A. to London, and he has consulted on a variety of well-known cases:
- He analyzed arson threat letters sent to actors Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel.
- He prepared testimony to bolster the FBI expert in the Melanie McGuire “suitcase” murder trial.
- He consulted in the Brian Hummert trial, analyzing letters sent to authorities following the murder of Hummert’s wife, Charlene, and testified in both of Hummert’s trials. The New York Times wrote, "His consultation on the murder of Charlene Hummert, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania woman who was strangled in 2004, helped put her killer in prison.”
- He prepared testimony against FBI interrogators in the Alvarez spy case.
- In the much publicized confession of John Karr to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, Dr. Leonard found no evidence of links between Karr’s writing to the note found at the scene of the murder years before. Dr. Leonard’s findings presaged those of the DNA tests which also ruled Karr out as a suspect.
Dr. Leonard’s students have some remarkable opportunities to apply what they are learning in the classroom to real world situations. They work with him on cases through Hofstra University’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis and the unique Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project. Internships are also possible with government agencies, think tanks, and law offices.
In addition to being a leading expert in forensic linguistics, Dr. Leonard has also received much attention for having been a rock star in his youth as a founding member of the group, Sha Na Na. He opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (Watch the YouTube video of him performing “Teen Angel” at the original Woodstock!), and played with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and John Lennon. Then, as The New York Times wrote, “At age 21, Mr. Leonard walked away from rock fame to pursue his real love: linguistics. Turns out to have been an inspired choice.” Dr. Leonard left the music business for a Fulbright Fellowship and a PhD from Columbia University. Rock 'n' roll actually ignited his interest in forensic linguistics: analyzing his group's recording contract, he realized they were not receiving money due them.
Dr. Leonard quipped to Slate, “I am one of a very few people in the world — actually, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one — who has worked with both the FBI and the Grateful Dead.” And probably the only Fulbright Fellow who played Woodstock.