WITNESS STATEMENTS AND HILLSBOROUGH: AN ACADEMIC ANALYSIS OF HOW THE EVIDENCE WAS GATHERED
I have written several times about the major difficulties caused by the process of taking witness statements following the Hillsborough disaster. The process of taking statements is analysed by an academic in Hillsborough disaster: a revealing analysis of the language in witness statements an article in the Conversation on June 2. This is important in understanding the way in which questions are asked, and which questions are asked, can lead to information being included in witness statements.
The article is by Patricia Canning a Lecturer/Researcher in Forensic Stylistics, Linguistics and Rhetoric at Utrecht University.
Patricia analysed 17 witness statements from residents near the ground in Hillsborough. The statements were taken by West Midlands police who were tasked with investigating events. The 17 statements were amongst hundreds taken, but were the statements that the police sent as a report to the DPP.
The report observes “a voice other than the witnesses is also present – the institutional voice of the police”. The linguistic clue relied on is “negation”. When a witness states that something did not happen. ” If I report something that did not happen then I am conveying that the non-event is newsworthy. This is because there are an infinite number of things that do not happen in the world and so my reporting of the non-event must have some level of narrative significance.”
NEGATION IN THE WITNESS STATEMENTS
The report uses the concept of “infelicitous” negations – when someone says something when they must have have been asked directly about it. The following examples appear in the witness statement.
“I did not see any loitering with the exception of several fans who were openly urinating in the road.
They were still just talking to each other and not misbehaving.
I saw groups of supporters standing around on pavements talking. They were not misbehaving at all.
On Saturday (15/04/89) most of the supporters I spoke to left and didn’t cause any trouble.”
There was no mention of loitering up the point these statements are made. This suggests that the police officers asked questions “did you see any loitering” and the witness answered “no”. The way in which the statements are drafted makes it read as if the witness volunteered this information.
“As these activities did not happen, it is very odd that a witness would offer this information. To give a flavour of how pervasive this is, in these 17 statements there were a total of 143 negations but only 44 were felicitous. That means 99 instances were infelicitous.”
THE USE OF LEADING QUESTIONS
Patricia also points to the use of leading questions.
(i) DID YOU WITNESS ANY INCIDENTS OF DRUNKENNESS OR DISORDERLY BEHAVIOUR OF ANY OF THE FANS? (BRIEF DESCRIPTION) INCLUDE TIME OF INCIDENT.
The same kinds of questions featured in questionnaires given out in pubs and licensed premises:
(ii) WAS ANY DAMAGE CAUSED TO YOUR PREMISES?
(iii) WERE YOU SUBJECTED TO ANY THREATS OR VIOLENCE BY FOOTBALL SUPPORTERS?
(iv) DID FOOTBALL SUPPORTERS STEAL ALCOHOL TO YOUR KNOWLEDGE? EXPLAIN BRIEFLY AND ESTIMATE QUANTITY.
YOU DON’T NEED TO ALTER WITNESS STATEMENTS TO GIVE A MISLEADING PICTURE OF EVENTS
“… as linguistic assessment of witness statements shows, a statement doesn’t need to be literally altered to give a misleading picture of events.”
ON DEMAND WEBINAR ON WITNESS STATEMENTS AND HILLSBOROUGH
APIL have an on demand webinar on “WITNESS STATEMENTS AND GATHERING WITNESS EVIDENCE: THE LESSONS THAT LAWYERS MUST LEARN FROM HILLSBOROUGH” details of which are available here.