Forensic Linguistics Innocence Project

Hofstra’s Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project, a project of Hofstra’s Forensic Linguistics Institute, is unique in the world. Integrated teams of faculty and students – both graduate and advanced undergraduate – work to reanalyze capital cases in which language evidence played a crucial role in the defendant's conviction and sentence of death.

Led by forensic linguists Dr. Robert Leonard and Dr. Juliane Ford, and Law professor Eric. M. Freedman, the teams specialize in applying the science of linguistics to death-penalty criminal cases and providing expert analysis and testimony pro bono to death penalty defendants.

The Institute itself also works on other serious crimes for both defense and investigators – for example, in cold case murders. Most recently, students and faculty helped to track and charge a serial killer in the American South.

A Recent Forensic Linguistics Innocence Project Case

In the Melissa Lucio case, the evidence in question was the lengthy police interrogations she underwent in the aftermath of her daughter’s death – interrogations that resulted in her conviction and death sentence. Weeks before her execution was to proceed, Leonard was asked to contribute an expert analysis to determine if the interrogation, and the statements deemed by police to constitute a confession, were flawed. He called on Dr. Juliane Ford, Linguistics Graduate Fellow Rachel Seo, and Dr. Tammy Gales to work with him to conduct a detailed linguistic analysis of the police officers’ questioning that night – a five-hour police interrogation of Lucio and a three-hour interrogation of Robert Alvarez, the daughter’s father.

Leonard’s report bolstered the opinions of two other experts – a psychologist expert on false confessions and an expert instructor on interrogation techniques, both of whom had declared the purported confession to be coerced.

One of the jurors who sentenced Lucio to death, upon learning these details related to the confession and other evidence withheld from them at the trial, summed up her change of opinion:

“The trial left me thinking Melissa Lucio was a monster, but now I see her as a human being who was made to seem evil because I didn’t have all the evidence I needed to make that decision,” Melissa Quintanilla, the foreperson on Lucio’s jury, said in an affidavit to the parole board this week. “Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence.”

Two days before the scheduled execution, Ms. Lucio’s death sentence was stayed. A lower court will now hold a hearing to consider new evidence and determine whether a new trial is warranted.

The Leonard Report

The full Habeas Motion

background on the Case

The Lucio case is at 16:45 of the Last Week Tonight clip.


Robert Leonard

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.


Inquiries concerning the Project may be directed to Professor Eric M. Freedman or Professor Robert A. Leonard.