June 30, 2006

The Pellicano file

I've posted a couple times now on the need for law enforcement to make use of the latest (well, within the last half century anyway) recording technology and use it to record their interrogations with suspects see here and here. In that way they could eliminate any doubts about the conversation leading up to the confessions they obtain. Let me be as clear as possible that I'm really FOR putting the bad guys in prison. But I argue that this should be done fairly and that the police should provide ALL the evidence found in their interrogations, not just what is in the tail ends of them, like when the suspect breaks down and confesses. Other fields, like linguistics, require us to provide all the information on which we base our findings. Some police departments appear to be lagging in this important requirement.

I'm suggesting is that the police do this during investigations but the rest of us should not go around surreptitiously taping the conversations of our friends and enemies. There are laws against this, to say nothing of the ethical problems involved. For example, how many of you readers have never heard of Anthony Pellicano? Peering through our new special CIA-developed  reverse optical scanner devices that make it possible for us to see you with the equipment recently installed in our Language Log computers (just kidding of course), as you read this, I can't see any hands going up. Of course you've heard of him. You read the newspapers. He's the Hollywood "private eye of the stars" who has recently been indicted in Los Angeles on 110 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, wiretapping, witness tampering, identity theft and destruction of evidence. If you want to catch up on Pellicano's recent activity, Wikipedia has a nice summary of it here. He's accused of using his private eye skills in electronics and tape recording to covertly tape the private conversations of people like Sylvester Stallone, Gary Shandling and Kevin Nealon, among many others. It's a huge investigation that goes beyond Pellicano to his clients and even to some of the lawyers representing them. It's a classic example of the way that tape recording should NOT be used.

I met Anthony Pellicano in the 1980s, when we were  both helping the defense lawyer in John Z. DeLorean's narcotics case, summarized here. That was back in the days when Pellicano's career as a private eye to Hollywood stars was just beginning to blossom. The FBI had made 64 undercover tapes of DeLorean talking with various people, trying either to get a bank to give his nearly bankrupt auto company a loan or to buy a big chunk of DeLorean Motor Company stock (I describe my role in this case in chapter 4 of my book, Language Crimes, Blackwell, 1993).

Pellicano had produced transcripts of those audio and video taped conversations. He was a pretty good private investigator but his transcripts were often way off the mark. He just didn't have the linguistic skills to do this. When we first met in attorney Howard Weitzman's office in Los Angeles, Pellicano made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with a linguist who might disagree with him, so, to put it mildly, our acquaintance was very short-lived. DeLorean used my transcripts rather than Pellicano's and was eventually acquitted of all the charges. Linguistics won that dispute.

But my point here is this. Let law enforcement officers tape record their interrogations from beginning to end, not just the part they want the jury to hear. Maybe even force them to do this. Then make sure that the transcripts of those interactions are accurate. The rest of us should obey the laws about taping other people without their knowledge and consent. Let Pellicano's legal problems teach all of us, even the clients and lawyers who allegedly benefitted from his services, and be our guide.

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 30, 2006 12:13 PM