By Erin Furman
Forty years ago, Robert Leonard was taking tequila shots with Jimmy Hendrix at a bar and opening with his band, Sha Na Na, at Woodstock. Now, he’s the chairman of Hofstra’s department of comparative literature and languages and director of the Forensic Linguistics Project. From rocking the crowd to testifying in high profile murder cases, Leonard has had a long and bizarre journey.
The journey started getting interesting when as an undergraduate at Columbia, Leonard’s brother told him and a few college friends, “Boys, I’m going to make you all rock ‘n’ roll stars.” “I didn’t believe him,” Leonard says. Five months later, at his brother’s encouragement, Leonard founded the retro band Sha Na Na and was invited by Jimmy Hendrix to open for Hendrix’ band at Woodstock. “It wasn’t gradual,” says Leonard. “One minute I wasn’t, the next I was.”
When Woodstock had passed and Leonard decided to walk away from the stage (leaving his gold bodysuit behind as well), he aimed his feet in the direction of his real love: linguistics. “I was always interested in languages,” says Leonard. “Language is the central thing that makes us humans.”
Leonard has been called on by both prosecutors and defenders at the state and federal level to analyze language evidence, and has been consulted on an array of cases that include murder, bribery, insider trading, extortion and medical malpractice. “Linguistic evidence helps make links between other kinds of evidence,” says Leonard. “Very often, there is language evidence that is ignored and misunderstood.”
Outside the courtroom, Leonard has served as the inspiration for Rob Potter, a character in Kathy Reichs’ latest Temperance Brennan novel “Bones to Ashes.” He is also featured on Court TV’s Hollywood Heat, an episode of Forensic Files titled “A Tight Leash” and a segment from Discovery Channel’s series “Solved” . “We really help the cause of justice,” says Leonard. “When we do our job correctly, we make sure that all the evidence is looked at scientifically.”
Ultimately, it is the pursuit of justice that drives Leonard’s success today. “Linguistic evidence is not enough to convict someone,” he says. There still needs to be hard evidence, motive and all the elements of a concrete case. “But you can build patterns… We ensure linguistic evidence is taken into account.”
For the full story, check out the Spring issue of Pulse, available now.