"Don’t Write the Line, If You Can’t Do Time"

A Notre Dame Professor Uses Literary Forensics to Catch Criminals

The case was simple, solving it not so much: In October 2003, a woman moved from North Ridgeville to Avon Lake, Ohio, after she split up with her abusive boyfriend. Shortly after the break-up, the woman received threats, most of them via anonymous text messages. The victim suspected her ex-boyfriend was the author, but at the time police were not able to trace the origin of the texts. With technology at its limit, police turned to Notre Dame College English Professor Lynn D. Zimmerman, Ph.D.


Dr. Zimmerman was asked to compare the 86 text messages with six signed love letters the suspect had sent to the victim. After careful examination of the documents, Dr. Zimmerman was able to prove the suspect had indeed written the harassing text messages. She had cracked the case, and made a case for the use of literary forensics to catch criminals.

Literary forensics is the textual analysis of documents of disputed authenticity or authorship. It is different from handwriting analysis in that it can also examine electronic texts by focusing on the way language is used or misused. The literary forensics “detective” examines extortion notes, death threats or ransom notes by looking at idiosyncratic uses of vocabulary, spelling and grammar. This type of forensic analysis can lead to the prosecution of criminals.

“Literary forensics provides the police with a textual fingerprint, linguistic DNA if you will, to catch a criminal,” says Dr. Zimmerman, who talked about her work as a literary forensics consultant during the College’s 2010 President’s Lecture in March. Her lecture was titled “Don’t write the line, if you can’t do the time.”

In the case involving the harassing text messages, the suspect’s textual fingerprint looked like this: He frequently misused apostrophes – “your” for “you’re” in the love letters, and “Im” for “I’m” in the text messages; he would imply subjects – “Hope ya feel better” in the letters, and “Caught on camera, what a slut” in the texts; and he consistently used comma splices – “I love you, Call me when you need me” in the letters, and “Work before life, screw you” in the texts.

Based on those and other similarities, Dr. Zimmerman determined the author of the love letters had also written at least 41 of the text messages. It was enough evidence for the police to arrest the ex-boyfriend. After being confronted with Dr. Zimmerman’s analysis, he confessed and went to prison for violating his restriction order and parole requirements.

The case is one of about a dozen Dr. Zimmerman has examined over the past eight years. She mostly works for private clients trying to find out who their partner is cheating with or who wrote a libelous document.

In one case, Dr. Zimmerman confirmed a lawyer’s suspicion about the author of a letter denouncing the lawyer’s work on a hospital board of trustees. She asked the lawyer not to share his suspicion with her, and, after examining the letter, concluded the author was a man in his 60s. To the lawyer’s surprise, the description matched that of his prime suspect.

Literary Forensics Detective at Work: A pen and some paper is all Dr. Lynn D. Zimmerman needs to catch a criminal. Photo: Christian Taske '07In a more serious case, police asked Dr. Zimmerman to draw out a confession from a suspect via e-mail. The suspect, an employee at an Ohio university, was accused of sexually assaulting an intoxicated student on a trip. The suspect then wrote e-mails to the student expressing both guilt and hope for an ongoing sexual relationship. The student went to the police, who wanted to avoid a he-said-he-said scenario. Since there were no witnesses to the crime, only an e-mailed confession would convict the suspect.

Pretending to be the student, Dr. Zimmerman answered the suspect’s e-mails asking for clarification of what exactly had happened on that trip. Over the course of the week, the suspect came close to admitting his crime but always stopped just short of it. Fearing that other students might be in danger, law enforcement officials decided they couldn’t wait any longer and took the suspect in. Without the confession, the case did come down to a he-said-he-said scenario and the prosecutors could not proceed with the case.

Dr. Zimmerman first began her work as a literary forensics consultant in 2002, when her ex-husband, a police officer, needed help with a case. She says her work as an English and communications professor sharpened the skills needed for the job.

“As a teacher you get to know your students’ unique writing styles quickly,” she says. “Every semester I catch students who plagiarize. Every professor who has done this has used literary forensics.”

Dr. Zimmerman, the new chair of Notre Dame’s English and Communication Department, says English professors need to take their work out of the Ivory Tower. Fascinated by how the study of language can assist in fixing real-life crises, literary forensics was her way out of that tower.

“This type of work transcends the medium,” Dr. Zimmerman says. “It’s much more open and credible than handwriting analysis.”

Dr. Zimmerman says she is amazed by how many people in law enforcement are still not aware that this tool is available to them, even though her findings are fully admissible as evidence in court and could be used to solve high-profile cases.

One high-profile case, which initially sparked Dr. Zimmerman’s interest in the study of language in criminal cases, was the Oklahoma City Bombing. In her doctoral dissertation titled “Disarming Militia Discourse: Analyzing The Turner Diaries,” she explored how language use in Timothy McVeigh’s copy of that novel aided him in the bombing.

The landmark case that established literary forensics as a credible tool for prosecution was that of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber who went on a mail bombing spree that spanned nearly 20 years. The break in the case came when Kaczynski’s sister-in-law noticed similarities in the writing style of the Unabomber’s manifesto and her brother-in-law’s essays. FBI intelligence analyst James Fitzgerald launched an investigation and found identical phrasing in both sets of documents. The evidence helped convict Kaczynski.

Dr. Zimmerman’s cases have not been of that magnitude, but she hopes that her work will continue to gain recognition and help solve crimes. In the meantime, any student in her classes contemplating plagiarism should be warned: There’s a literary forensics detective sitting at the desk in front of you.                

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.

E.g., 06/24/19
E.g., 06/24/19