05 March 2008

Language and the Law

"Karl Taylor found guilty of murdering Kate Beagley on first date," sez the Beeb front page earlier today. The article itself had the headline Man guilty of 'first date' murder. A horrific story, indeed, of the murder of a London woman on her first date with a guy she met in a club.

Somehow, though, the "breaking news" headline seems to give the impression that the man wouldn't have been found guilty of murder had it not been his first date with the woman. Again, it's all down to the syntax of the sentence, which is structurally ambiguous:

Karl Taylor [found guilty of murdering Kate Beagley] on first date - the crime here being "murder"
Karl Taylor [found guilty of murdering Kate Beagley on first date] - the crime being "murder on a first date"

Of course, this is just me being pedantic. However, very occasionally, there is a very small subsection of linguistics that has some real-world relevance, not just in forensics (speech analysis in recorded conversations) but in legal cases too. The most famous of these involved a pair of friends - Derek Bentley and Chris Craig - in the '50s. After a failed robbery, Bentley and Craig got into a police chase after which they found themselves on a roof, cornered by the cops. Craig whipped out his gun and the police demanded that he drop it. Craig didn't and opened fire, injuring a policeman and shooting another dead in the ensuing chaos.

Crucially, however, he only fired the gun after Bentley cried out, "Let him have it, Chris," which is, of course, ambiguous between "drop the gun, Chris" and "go on, shoot him, Chris." Craig, however, was under 18 and so couldn't be executed, whereas Bentley was over 18 and could, even though it was Craig who had fired the gun. Obviously, an eye was being sought for an eye and during the case a linguist was consulted. In the end, both Craig and Bentley were found guilty, the former being sent to prison and the latter being sentenced to death. In 1993, Bentley was pardoned but unfortunately for him, this was 40 years too late.

There were other complications in the case, such as whether Bentley was mentally retarded; it seems that his mental age was considerably younger than 18. However, the semantic ambiguity is probably the most memorable part of the case (which has since been made into a Christopher Eccleston film). The moral of the story being that if you are guilty, you should try to make your potentially incriminating commands as ambiguous as possible in order to potentially evade later conviction; if, of course, you are innocent, you should speak as unambiguously as possible lest your words be later turned around and used against you by criminal linguists.

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