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CFL Interviews

James R. Fitzgerald
July 2009

"Forensic linguistics is on the cutting edge of forensic science, in terms of its applicability to real world situations."

Jim Fitzgerald is a former FBI profiler and the only forensic linguist ever to have been employed by the FBI. During his twenty years with the FBI he created the CTAD - Communicated Threat Assessment Database - and worked on numerous high profiles cases, including the Unabomber case. Now in his retirement, he works with The Academy Group and is building a private sector corpus of criminally oriented communications, CTARC. During the Forensic Linguistics Summer School at Aston University he kindly found some time to answer some questions from Ria Perkins.

You are a criminal profiler and forensic linguist, with over twenty year experience with the FBI. What first sparked your interest in linguistics, in particular forensic linguistics?

I've always been an avid reader and I've always enjoyed language. In my first few years in the FBI, I was in New York City, and on a bank-robbery squad. I used to enjoy taking the bank robbery notes and looking at them, and as short as they were, I would still look for language clues in terms of the evidence. Of course the originals would go off for fingerprints and things like that, but I always thought there were somehow clues to the type of person who wrote these relatively short notes. I can't say I solved a case from them, but none-the-less I kept a collection of those notes. Then I was promoted within the FBI, to become a criminal profiler, and went to the training programme at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Within the three months of training from psychologists, psychiatrists, homicide investigators, behaviourists, and professionals in the field, we had two hours of what was generically called: 'statement analysis'. It mostly just covered issues about language, in written or spoken statements as well as indicators of truthfulness and deception.

What was the first major case you worked on?

In June of 1995, shortly after I had arrived at the Behavioural Analysis Unit, I was asked to go to San Francisco to work on the Unabomber case. I was in fact part of the team that helped solve that case; the linguistic element of it being a very integral part. With the receipt of the Unabomber's manifesto I knew, even without being a linguist at the time, that somehow this document and the thirty other letters that he wrote prior to that, held the answer to who this person was. I asked if anyone had done much work with the writings in that case itself, besides of course sending the original for fingerprints, and DNA etc. I found they really hadn't, so I went in to gratuitously reading every single page he ever wrote in an attempt to better determine what kind of author we had. Ultimately the name Ted Kaczynski was finally identified and we attained some known writings of his. I undertook what I then called a comparative analysis, and realised that the authorship was consistent. It was the first time ever that text analysis evidence was used in US federal courts, for the purpose of a search warrant. A small cabin in rural Montana was eventually searched and the Unabomber's career ended. I feel concepts of linguistic analysis - although I didn't even call it that back then but that's essentially what it was - helped solve that 17-year-long investigation.

So I did it backwards, most young people go to school and get their linguistics degree and then go out and get a job somewhere, at a university, or perhaps an agency, doing that type of work. I was always very secure in my job, I did not have to go back to school, but I realised that I enjoyed recognising patterns in language and linguistic profiling. But I said that I specifically needed a formal education if I wanted to be the best I could be. I continued to work cases for the next five years or so, up to the year 2000. I realised at the point that it really was necessary for me to go back to school and attain my second master's degree. That's when I enrolled at Georgetown University and, now have my Master's in the field of linguistics. I've been a practitioner of the same, during that time but particularly since then, and even now in retirement.

You set up the CTAD database and you're now working with a new private one - would you mind outlining why such databases are so important from the FBI's point of view?

Sure. After the Unabomber case and having worked other cases in the FBI I realised the need for a centralised database or corpus of some sort. CTAD of course stands for Communicated Threat Assessment Database; I designed and implemented that within the FBI because of the fact that the FBI needed some way, from both a linguistic and behavioural perspective, to link the thousands of criminally oriented communications they were receiving every year. While there was a database at the FBI laboratory for certain high profile sorts of crimes, they only focused on key words, nothing stylistically, and certainly not function words or other formatting issues that could be very important to linking one or more communications with each other. So having done my research in this field, having started my classes at Georgetown I realised the value of a genre specific corpus within the FBI. So that was started there and it proved to be a very good and effective working tool. It in fact served the FBI very well under my tutelage and continues to be a viable tool there. At the present time it is a million plus word corpus, and contains about three thousand separate criminally oriented communications. So with that in mind, upon retirement I joined an existing company called The Academy Group. It is so named because all its members are retired profilers from the FBI Academy. I am the first forensic linguist they've ever hired and one of the conditions of my hiring, and one of my suggestions which they readily agreed upon, was that we should build a private sector oriented corpus. We have since named it the Communicative Threat Assessment Resource Corpus, CTARC for short. We are in the process of still building that and we hope to have that up and running and fully functioning in early 2010. Its goal is to also work with law enforcement and prosecutor offices, but to also be a repository for private sector threats, extortion demands and product threatening communications. It is progressing well and it will be as good as CTAD is at the FBI. It will be a much advanced version of that, with much more searchable fields. Its ultimate job is to link cases, solve cases, and to assist in expert testimony and research.

We were discussing earlier the fact that you are the technical advisor to the television series Criminal Minds. While many accuse such shows of dumbing down science they do popularise it as well. What are your opinions on these matters?

I am very proud to be associated with Criminal Minds. I mostly deal with the writers as opposed to the actors. I told them when they hired me that I would tell them how it works in real life: how criminal profiling functions, what it can do, what it can't do, and what my experience with real-life serial offenders, killers and rapists had exposed me to. There have been a few episodes in which forensic linguistics has played a role and I have walked them through that and what certain types of communication would look like and how the analysis of that would take place. On the whole I believe the show is very much true to form in terms of real life, the only exception being of course, that the crime is solved in 42 minutes, or even a few days and weeks of TV time. That is less common in the real world.

What is the future for forensic linguistics in your opinion, what direction should we be going in?

I would like to see it certainly at the educational levels and the programme here at the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston is brilliant! I would like to see more centres or university programmes such as this around the world, including in my own country, in which there are only three schools; Hofstra University, Georgetown University and now Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where actual courses in forensic linguistics are taught. I happen to be an adjuncted faculty member of both Hofstra and Stockton College, and I am actually teaching a summer course this year, in forensic linguistics at Stockton College. So we're slowly getting the word out there, slowly bringing practitioners on board, realising they're not going to be experts with one course, or necessarily even a degree. It also takes years of practical experience and working different cases and finding yourself to be right a lot, and also occasionally wrong, but learning from those errors of judgement and making yourself better for the next time around. But that's what programmes like this one do, for the students; the practical application along with the theory and science that goes with it. I think forensic linguistics has a great future. I believe it is on the cutting edge of forensic science, in terms of its applicability to real world situations. It can solve cases, it can help corporations understand what their employees are saying, sometimes anonymously, and it can solve language related crimes. Where, before forensic linguistics, there were just lucky guesses involved now science backs it up, which makes it so much more accurate and so much more efficient.

That was really interesting, thank you for your time.

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Related links

James Fitzgerald's profile on the Academy Group website
' FBI Profiler Had It Right in Anthrax Case ' - A story from newsmax.com
Criminal Minds TV show

© Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, Birmingham, UK, 2013