September 27, 2007

Treason in Georgia?

No matter how hard I try, I just can't seem to retire. I've failed at it over and over again. I'm a sucker for interesting new law cases and so when an old friend, Larry Barcella of the Paul Hastings law firm in Washington DC, called me to help him with a treason case in the Republic of Georgia, I quickly agreed. It's a fascinating case with international implications that I won't get into now but you can read brief summaries in the Christian Science Monitor (here) and in Russia Today (here).

On May 4, 2006 a meeting was allegedly held in Tbilisi in which the participants were said to have plotted to overthrow the government of Georgia. Four of the people who claim to have attended this meeting became the prosecution's best witnesses in the treason trial that  followed, along with seven others who admitted that they did not attend this alleged meeting but who were told about it by others (note: hearsay evidence appears to be allowed in Georgia's legal system). Although the judge closed the trial to the public, including the media, reports about some of the human rights issues managed to trickle out in a variety of places, including Harpers Magazine on July 10 and July 20 of 2007.

The alleged convener of this alleged May 4 meeting was Maia Topuria, a leader of one of the many political opposition parties in Georgia. Forensic linguistics gets into the picture because eleven key government witnesses produced handwritten "confession statements" about what took place at this meeting. Lawyers for the defendants asked me to analyze these statements. I did so and produced a fifty-page expert report containing six charts. The forensic linguist's role here is to analyze the language to determine whether there is linguistic evidence of some kind of influence on those who produced it, but not to try to explain the source or cause of such influence. That's an issue for the lawyers to explore.

My report was translated into Georgian by a court appointed translator and all of the witness statements were officially translated into English. This was a bench trial so my report was read by the judge and was also used extensively by all the defense lawyers, including Lawrence Barcella, Melinda Sarafa, and Gela Nikolaishvili, in their cross examinations and closing statements.

One crucial question for the defense was whether the eleven witness statements, given to at least four different police investigators over a three-month period of time, were produced independently (as the prosecution claimed) or made under the direction and influence of the police (as the defense claimed). If the latter was the case, their authenticity and truth could be seriously questioned. Linguists analyzing written texts apply the conventional tools of linguistics, such as discourse analysis, lexical analysis, and syntax analysis, to the texts, comparing each witness's statement with the others to discover what is similar and what is different. And that's what I did here.

Topic sequencing turned out to be important. Even though the police investigators claimed that the witnesses wrote their statements independently, my charts comparing all of the witness statements with each other evidenced a remarkably similar (very often identical) sequential order in the topics they introduced. Different people who claim to have witnessed the same event (or got their information second-hand) may be expected to talk about some of the same facts in common, but it is highly improbable that they will report them in a similar topic sequence or, as happened very frequently here, in the identical topic sequence.

I also compared the words and expressions used by the eleven witnesses. It can be expected that some words will be used in common but it is highly improbable that both the witnesses who claim to have been present at the alleged meeting and those who were not there but were told about it by others will select identical words and expressions to the extent found in these statements. In my report I cited 32 examples, most of which were also sequenced identically. Examples of these include "many thousand meeting," "the growing character of," "imitation of rushing into the chancellery," "shooting in the direction of," "elucidation by television," "pretext of protection," "to liquidate the ministers," "highly class professionals," and "make a decision to retire." The lexical inventory of Georgian is large enough to suggest that we could expect to find more variability in these (and many other) words and expressions than in those they wrote.

A remarkable similarity of sentence and clause structure was also found in their writing of the witnesses. My report cited 32 examples of these. One example shows the following identical syntax: "In the beginning of May of 2006, I do not remember the exact date, I was in the central office of the party." Three of the witness wrote this in exactly the same way, while the others varied only slighly, omitting the "I do not remember the exact date." The other 31 similar or identical sentence structures were also commonly used by the witnesses.

But two of the witnesses, who claim to have heard about the May 4 meeting from two different people who allegedly attended it, produced unbelievably similar statements. At one point they produced 14 consecutive, very long sentences in which all of their words, syntax, and punctuation marks were completely identical. 770 consecutive words, exactly the same!

One of these two witnesses was asked during cross-examination for the meaning of some of the words he had written. He said "liquidate"   meant "to devestate,"  dispute" meant "a TV debate," and "immitation" meant "an attempt." He said he could no longer remember what he meant by "spontaneous," although he knew what it meant when he wrote it. Equally astonishing at trial was when the defense showed videotaped evidence that on the day one of the witnesses said he was giving his supposedly independent statement to the government, he had actually spent the entire day in his office.

And the result of all this? One might expect evidence like this to cause the judge to acquit. Not so. In late August, all of the defendants, including Maia Topuria, were found guilty of treason. Topuria was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. The lawyers are taking this case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The judicial system of Georgia needs a lot of help. Whatever shortcomings the American system may have, these must pale in significance to those in the Republic of Georgia.

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 27, 2007 01:22 PM