Campus: CSU Fresno -- August 2, 2002

Students Help Develop New Crime-Fighting Tool

Four students from Bullard High School and three from California State University, Fresno are getting a first-hand look into the world of forensic linguistics as they work on a university research project this summer.

The seven students are assisting linguistics professor Gerald McMenamin in his ongoing work to identify authors through their writing styles, an evolving discipline that is increasingly being used in civil cases and by law enforcement officials to track down criminals.

McMenamin’s “American Writing Project,” funded by a $5,000 Laval Award for Innovative Technology and Research and by the School of Arts and Humanities, will provide baseline information for the linguistic description of American writing, as well as for any forensic linguist attempting to determine the relative significance of particular “markers” of writing style.

The high school students, Chanae Joi Edwards, Holly Johnsen, Stephanie Rodela and Megan Roehl, participate in the university’s Bullard High Humanities project during the school year. This summer, they have been examining and preparing a database of letters to the editor, in their original handwritten or typed form, provided by randomly selected American and Canadian newspapers.

Fresno State students participating are Aarti Nayudu, project coordinator, and Kristina Perez and Katrina Porter.

McMenamin, a recognized scholar in stylistics and an internationally known forensic linguist, regularly serves as a consultant in criminal and civil cases, including the high-profile Unabomber and JonBenet Ramsey cases.

He said that each individual has particular writing idiosyncrasies that make it possible to identify him or her for legal purposes. The American Writing Project is building a large collection of writing samples and a database for linguists to draw upon when analyzing American writing, and for forensic linguists to use to determine the relative importance of certain style markers.

In addition to their research, the students toured the San Francisco Police Department Crime Lab and will join McMenamin in presenting a paper, "A Corpus and Database of Style Markers in American Writing," at the meeting of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners on Aug. 16 in San Diego.

(Editors: The students and McMenamin are working on the letters to the editors from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Monday through Thursday until Aug. 15 at Fresno State. For interviews contact Shirley Armbruster at 278-5292 or 269-5261.)

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