Did he say “I shot the prick” or “I can’t breathe”?

By Andrew L. Urban.

The choked, panicked words “I shot the prick!” recorded in an emergency call played at a murder trial would have been significant evidence … unless what the man actually said was “I can’t breathe!”. Deciphering recordings like this needs expertise in phonetics, arguably the least known of the forensic sciences – but Australian law gives the task to detectives, calling them ‘ad hoc experts’. This needs reform, say forensic transcription specialists.

Of all the forensic sciences, one that is virtually unknown to the general public – yet which is in daily use or misuse – is forensic transcription. This is predicated on the science of phonetics and applied most importantly to covert recordings in criminal trials. Injustice can easily result from use of a recording that is hard to decipher without proper expertise.

Proper expertise hardly ever means the police, whose transcriptions are far too prone to cognitive bias, not to mention lacking in scientific probity, says Dr Helen Fraser, who has lectured on phonetics in universities for almost two decades and is now an independent researcher, helping courts to ‘hear the truth’ in covert recordings

Dr Helen Fraser

In her experience, “creating a reliable transcript of indistinct audio is a specialised task, requiring real, not ‘ad hoc’, expertise. Listening many times is necessary, but far from sufficient. This is because viewing a transcript while listening to indistinct audio is liable to “prime” listeners to hear in line with the transcript even when it is manifestly inaccurate. Managing priming effectively requires expertise in specialised branches of linguistic science.”

One blatant example, Dr Fraser says, was a series of six sections in a muddy, indistinct covert recording. The detectives produced a transcript in which the word ‘heroin’ appears in every one of these sections. On investigation, she says, no such word had been uttered.

It may seem unlikely that those two phrases as different as ‘I shot the prick’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ could be mistaken – until you hear the recording. You can listen for yourself  in the audio box headed ‘Why we need forensic phonetics’.

The speaker, New Zealander David Bain, was 22 when in 1995 he was convicted of murdering five members of his family with a shotgun, and sentenced to life in prison. Businessman Joe Karam believed Bain was innocent and guided Bain’s legal team in a successful appeal to the Privy Council, which ruled there had been a substantial miscarriage of justice. “The audio was not actually used in the appeal trial because the judge finally accepted the evidence of multiple phonetics experts that the police transcript (‘I shot the prick’), though compelling to listeners’ perception, was inaccurate,” Dr Fraser explains.

“However, it was released into the public domain after the trial, and many who heard it agreed with the (inaccurate) police version – demonstrating the powerful effect it could have had in the trial.”

In the famous Oscar Pistorius murder case, testimony is reported everywhere as including the words ‘She wasn’t breathing’, but close analysis reveals a different interpretation. “I think he is saying ‘She was everything’ and that interpretation is supported by acoustic analysis, using a spectrogram – which would look very different if he had said ‘wasn’t breathing’, explains Dr Fraser.

In the case of six-year-old American beauty queen, JonBenét Ramsey, who was murdered in 1996, investigators suggest noises heard at the end of the phone call in which JonBenét’s mother reported her missing contain words showing the family was involved in her murder. Again, while many are persuaded to ‘hear’ the words suggested by police, phonetic analysis makes clear they are a fanciful interpretation.

after 30 years, time for reform

The problems identified by the linguists relate to four key areas: transcription of indistinct English, translation of material in languages other than English, attribution of utterances to speakers, and enhancing of poor quality audio. According to Dr Fraser, they stem from the High Court judgement in Butera (1987), which set the precedent for allowing police transcripts to be provided to the jury for evaluation.

After 30 years, says Dr Fraser, it is “time to create a process that ensures covert recordings used in evidence in court are interpreted reliably and fairly.” Since covert recordings are made secretly, it is difficult to control the recording conditions – likewise for emergency calls. The result is often very poor quality audio. “It is essential to establish accurately who is speaking and what they are saying.” That, of course, is the very purpose of the recording.

These issues (among others) will be raised at the conference of the International Association of Forensic Linguists, to be held in Melbourne July 1-5, 2019, at RMIT . Dr Fraser, Michael Walsh (University of Sydney), Janny H C Leung (University of Hong Kong) and Chris Heffer (Cardiff University) are keynote speakers. The 2019 International Congress of Phonetic Sciences will also be held in Melbourne, August 5 – 9, 2019.


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4 Responses to Did he say “I shot the prick” or “I can’t breathe”?

  1. Lola Moth says:

    The recording sounds like the speaker is having trouble breathing. When people need to speak but they are in respiratory distress they use as few words as possible and they choose words that are short and easy to pronounce. It is an effort to pronounce Ps and Bs in such circumstances, but when you are trying to convey to others that you can’t breathe there is no shorter way or any other words you can use than to say, “I can’t breathe.” The effort put into pronouncing the B in ‘breathe’ is obvious. The same effort would be required to pronounce the P in ‘prick’, but why would someone put the extra effort in to say “I killed the prick” when it is so much shorter and easier for them to say “I killed ‘im.”?

  2. Garry Stannus says:

    Again, thank you for another insightful post, Andrew. I used the provided ‘listen for yourself’ material at the following [ https://forensictranscription.com.au/ ] link and read (and viewed) with interest the ‘Forensic Transcription in Australia’ homepage material. I recalled how I myself – despite my best intentions – seem to have made my own transcription error when providing a transcript of Meaghan Vass’s interview on 60 Minutes earlier this (10Mar2019) year …

    Though I believe that I took proper steps to publicly correct my error, my ‘goof up’ is still out there, i.e. in Bob Moles’ ‘Networked Knowledge’; the mistake yet persists publicly, even now.

    I’ve seen Robin’s comment (June 8, 2019 at 6:24 pm ) and found that particularly interesting. I have read an account of the murder of Nicole Simpson Brown and that of Ron Goldman. Forgive my errant memory, but perhaps that book was Jeffrey Toobin’s “𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑅𝑢𝑛 𝑜𝑓 𝐻𝑖𝑠 𝐿𝑖𝑓𝑒 : 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑃𝑒𝑜𝑝𝑙𝑒 𝑣 𝑂. 𝐽. 𝑆𝑖𝑚𝑝𝑠𝑜𝑛”. If I have the correct book in mind, I think that anyone would find in it a painstaking, referenced-to-the-nth-degree account of the Simpson-Brown – Goldman murders, of O. J. Simpson’s actions, of the investigation and of the mismanaged trial which subsequently failed to convict him.

    I can’t say that I recall from my reading of Toobin that recording transcripts featured in O. J. Simpson’s trial, but I defer to Robin’s memory on that particular matter. My own luke-warm memory of that case is that the author set out the clear evidence of Simpson’s guilt and also explained the ‘not guilty’ verdict in terms of a number of factors, including the strategic approach adopted by the person leading the prosecution case.

    During the many times that I’ve pored over the transcript of the Neill-Fraser trial, I’ve noticed from time to time what must have been – shall we say – typographical ‘errors’: examples of confusion of words (e.g. of the type: poured/pored/pawed) then similarly, spellings such as Ann for Anne.

    Other issues confronting the transcriptor/transcriber include punctuation, layout and intonation. Even the length of a pause between counsel asking a question and its being answered by a witness is in my view significant, but how does one incorporate such a perspective? Then again there is punctuation and layout. Can formatting and other tricks be used to indicate emphasis?

    Apart from being a fascinating topic, unfortunately, as in the cases of Pel, Neill-Fraser and O. J. Simpson, the stakes are often high. As Robin notes in her comment, the results can be crushing. I returned to my copy of her book “𝐴𝑐𝑐𝑖𝑑𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑎𝑙 𝐷𝑒𝑎𝑡ℎ?” and I re-read Justice Lasly’s sentencing remarks. Crushing. And I re-read Robin’s final reflections, of sitting in a car before her drive to Brighton, of memories of her own, much earlier potential ‘Akon moment’.

    Finally, a brief comment – once again – on transcripts: I watched as Colin McClaren gave evidence (by video) to Justice Brett. ‘As I recall’, McClaren had had the foresight to prepare his own transcript of conversation he had with Meaghan Vass. It was then astonishing to me that a witness could be so prepared. Of all the evidence that I heard through those Neill-Fraser 2nd Appeal Application hearings, his impressed me the most with his preparation, his professionalism and so forth. His book “𝑆𝑜𝑢𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑛 𝐽𝑢𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑐𝑒” also sits by my side, as do others, such as Andrew’s “𝑀𝑢𝑟𝑑𝑒𝑟 𝑏𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑃𝑟𝑜𝑠𝑒𝑐𝑢𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛”. I make the following observation: McClaren: a former policeman/detective with a proven record of excellence in his field … did not trust in the transcripts prepared for the prosecution. He apparently did not trust them to the extent that he brought his own independently prepared transcript/s to the court.

  3. Brian Johnston says:

    He may have said “I jus can(t) breathe”. There is almost an s sound

    It certainly sounds like “I shot the prick”. But. Is this the type of language that Bain would have used. We all have our own words and styles.

    I believe there was no shotgun rather a .22 was used

  4. Robin Bowles says:

    An interesting and important article, Andrew. More recently, the shooting by a US police officer of an unarmed women also involved dubious recordings. And if my memory hasn’t completely deserted me, I think recording transcripts featured in OJ Simpson’s trial as well. When I wrote my first book, Blind Justice, I became aware of the importance of accurate transcriptions being interpreted from recordings made from the wearing of a ‘wire’. Denis Tanner, the accused but never convicted suspect, got hold of hours of police wire recordings and the transcripts his specialists produced differed markedly from the police version. He sets it all out in a book he co-wrote called ‘Blackened Tanner’ if any of your readers is interested.
    Another related area of interest is the use of court translators for accused, or witnesses, who don’t have a good grasp of English. I was struck by this problem during the sentencing of Melbourne Sudanese Dinka woman, Akon Guode. His Honour was using words in his sentencing remarks that had no equivalent in the Dinka language or culture. A very difficult situation. I interviewed the accredited translator, who was Egyptian(!) for my book Accidental Death? and she said she was struggling at times to get the gist of the remarks across. Mind you poor Akon looked as if she was in a trance, so a fluent Dinka speaker may not have reached her anyway!

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