July 01, 2006

The DeLorean saga

After my last post (here) in which I mentioned the case of US v. John Z. DeLorean, I got a slew of messages (well, three) asking me to say more about how linguistic analysis helped the car manufacturer get his acquittal at trial. So here it is, in abbreviated form.

It's a lot of work analyzing 64 audio- and videotaped conversations. After I corrected all the transcripts (always the first step), getting them in jury ready condition, I started with a topic analysis to find out who brought up which topics throughout. Then I clustered the topics of each speaker to get a picture of what was most on their minds, their agendas in other words. The first 30 or so conversations were between DeLorean and an undercover FBI agent who posed as a banker. At first the banker said that he thought he could get DeLorean's company either a loan or that he could help find some investors in the  company. After several months of no progress along these lines the banker told DeLorean that he couldn't get him a loan but he'd keep on trying to find investors. Then he added, out of the blue, that he was also involved in a drug importation business. If DeLorean would care to invest 5 million dollars in it, this might solve his financial problems.

DeLorean's responses were non-committal because, as he testified, he wanted to keep open the possibility that the banker might still be able to find some investors. Several more conversations followed and DeLorean still didn't bite on the banker's drug scheme. His substantive topics continued to be about his problems getting the motor company up and running and his need for investors to keep it afloat, accompanied by a lot of bragging about how successful his new car would be. At one point DeLorean told the agent an outright lie. Evading the banker's persuasive efforts, DeLorean said that his last 2 million dollars had already been taken by the bankrupcy court. Undaunted, the agent then urged DeLorean to turn over either the titles of a few cars just off the assembly line or some stock in his ski equipment manufacturing plant. Getting nowhere with this, the government then switched tactics.

At the very time that these conversations had yielded nothing on which to base an indictment, other agents had just caught a drug smuggler  flying drugs into the country. When they questioned him, he told them that a few years ago he had lived next door to the DeLorean family in San Diego. Their sons, in fact, had kept in touch with each other over the years. The name, DeLorean, leaped out at the agents and they got this pilot to become a cooperating witness and visit with DeLorean to try to convince him to buy into their drug scheme.

This secretly videotaped, 40 minute meeting took place at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington DC on September 4, 1982. It became the major evidence used in the case. The pilot's task was to convince DeLorean that if he would just invest something, anything, in their scheme, this would be taken, as he put it, as "an act of good faith." It wasn't made clear exactly what he meant by this. DeLorean assumed that   they meant it as an act of good faith to encourage them to find investors. The pilot then put some charts on the coffee table and showed DeLorean how his investment in their operation would make him enough money to escape bankruptcy. When he explained that these were "Colombian folks running a dope program," DeLorean's response was, "It'll be dangerous." Taking this as a positive sign, the pilot went on to explain how an $800,000 investment could return 40 million. He pointed out that there were two ways to go -- either interim financing or buy 100 kilos, a $300,000 investment, and get 14 million in return within ten days, time enough to forestall bankruptcy.

To this proposal, DeLorean told another lie: "I'm getting money through an Irish group. It's gotta be legitimate." He went on to explain how "tough these guys" are.  The plant was in Ireland, so this reference, though not explicit, referred to the IRA. It was DeLorean's way of saying thanks but no thanks, along with a  hint of threat in case he was pushed too far. Note that DeLorean did not explicitly say "no,"  but certainly this could be inferred. It also still left the door open for the agents to find investors, now DeLorean's only hope for saving his company. Changing the subject, DeLorean then asked, "Is their investment as a loan or as an equity investment?" The pilot replied, "Their interest is in megamillion dollar coke sales...so their interest is in stock." The government now believed that it had all it needed and they quickly indicted DeLorean.

A cumulative analysis of all 64 conversations showed that DeLorean's major substantive topic was to get either a loan or investors. The agent went along with this at first, saying he'd try to help him, then introduced the new topic, the drug scheme, over and over again without dropping the  topic of finding investors. DeLorean didn't bite. At the final September 4 meeting we hear the two men talking about "investment," with neither of them explicit about who was investing in what. Both use the noun subject with no direct object, leaving this ambiguous. DeLorean meant,  "you invest in my company," while the agent meant, "you invest in our drug operation." How to unravel this ambiguity? Through the meaning that DeLorean conveyed throughout the 64 conversations, coupled with the fact that DeLorean never said "yes" to any of the agents' proposals.

The prosecution in this case was based on several illusions that it probably hoped would convince a  jury to  convict.

1. The piling up of 64 recordings gives the illusion that there must be a huge pile of incriminatory evidence here. There wasn't. One clue to the government's failure to get the evidence it wanted is that the investigation went on for about a year before the indictment was made. This indicates that the earlier tapes did NOT give them what they needed.

2. The prominence of an indicted millionaire manufacturer is often thought to be fair game for jury conviction. Obviously, not every millionaire is a crook but there is often a negative illlusion or predisposition that this is true.

3. The contamination principle was at work in this case. The very mention of illegal stuff like drugs leads to the illusion that the target is involved up to his ears, whether or not he really is.

4. The illusion that the agents' topics and agenda were about illegality tends to override DeLorean's topics and agenda that he wanted only a loan or investors.

5. The illusion created by ambiguity, noted above, can lead to the interpretation of guilt unless words like "investment" are set in their proper context.

Despite their lack of linguistic analysis, the government plowed right on, believing only one hypothesis, that of DeLorean's guilt. Good intelligence analysis investigates multiple hypotheses in the effort to reach conclusions. Not having done this, the government wasted heaps of  taxpayer money on a lost cause and a failure to convict. The sad thing is that DeLorean suffered  even more.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 1, 2006 05:47 PM