The Case of Jenny Nicholl

1 – Introduction
Though an older case now, it is by no means a minor one, and involved the analysis of text messaging by forensic linguists in establishing the provenance of text messages received from a missing girl’s phone. The girl in question was 19-year-old Jenny Nicholl, of Richmond in North Yorkshire. Last seen by her parents leaving her home on the 30th of June 2005, she told them that she would not be home that night, however, despite the fact that her father and friends were receiving texts supposedly from her, when Jenny had not come home four days later, and her car was found abandoned at the Holy Hill Inn on the outskirts of Richmond, her parents reported her to the police as missing (04th of July 2005).

After a massive manhunt operation lasting five months, on the 03rd of November 2005, despite the fact that they had not (and have never yet) found her body, Detective Inspector Pete Martin announced that the investigation had become a murder enquiry. Unemployed, 50-year-old father-of-two, David Hodgson became the prime suspect.

2 – Data
Part of the inquiry focussed on the texts sent from Jenny’s phone between the day she left home and over the course of the next two days[ref]. A copy of part of the dataset – the four disputed texts, and a handful of Jenny’s known texts – can be found below.

Texts from Jenny Nicholl Suspicious Texts
01 Sum black+pink k swiss shoes and all the other shit like socks.We r goin2the indian.Only16quid.What u doin x 12 Thought u wer grassing me up.mite b in trub wiv me dad told mum i was lving didnt give a shit.been2 kessick camping was great.ave2 go cya
02 Yeah shud b gud i just have2get my finga out and do anotha tape wil do it on sun.will seems keen2x 13 Hi jen tel jak i am ok know ever 1 s gona b mad tell them i am sorry.living in scotland wiv my boyfriend.shitting meself dads gona kill me mum dont give a shite.hope nik didnt grass me up.keeping phone of.tell dad car jumps out of gear and stalls put it back in auction.tell him i am sorry
03 Shit is it.fuck icant2day ive allready booked2go bowling.cant realy pull out wil go2shop and get her sumet soon.thanx4tdlin me x 14 Y do u h8 me i know mum does.told her i was goin.i aint cumin back and the pigs wont find me.i am happy living up here.every1 h8s me in rich only m8 i got is jak.txt u couple wks tell pigs i am nearly 20 aint cumin back they can shite off
04 No reason just seing what ur up2.want2go shopping on fri and2will’s on sun if ur up2it 15 She got me in this shit its her fault not mine get blame 4evrything.i am sorry ok just had 2 lve shes a bitch no food in always searching me room eating me sweets.ave2 go ok i am very sorry x
05 Sorry im not out2nite havnt seen u 4a while aswel ru free2moro at all x
06 No im out wiv jak sorry it took me so long ive had fone off coz havnt got much battery
07 Only just turned my fone havnt lied bout anything.no it doesnt look good but ur obviously jst as judgemental than the rest.cu wen i cu&i hope its not soon
08 I havnt lied2u.anyway im off back2sleep
09 I know i waved at her we wer supposed2go at4but was a buffet on later on so waited.anyway he had a threesome it was great cu around
10 Im tierd of defending myself theres no point.bye
11 Happy bday!will b round wiv ur pressent2moz sorry i cant make it2day.cu2moz xxx

3 – Analysis
The investigators in the case found a number of marked differences between Jenny’s texts and the suspicious ones sent after her disappearance. (Note the important point that these texts and the analysis of them alone do not prove that Hodgson murdered Jenny, but they do support the argument that at some point Hodgson acquired her phone (however briefly) and used it to send misleading texts, and that then raises questions about why he would pursue this course of action.)

The differences between Jenny’s texts (JT) and the suspicious texts (ST) include things like:

– Habitual spacing: JT use word9word, ST use word9 word, word 9word, etc.
Signoffs: JT use cu and x, ST use cya
Taboo language/accent: JT use shit, ST use shite
Possessive/accent: JT use my, myself, ST use me, meself
Spelling: JT use fone, ST use phone
Contractions/accent: JT use ive, have2, ST use ave(2)
Negative markers/accent: JT use im not, havnt, ST use aint

It’s important to note that for a robust inquiry, the data must demonstrate both distinctiveness and consistency – a distinctive feature that occurs once isn’t enough, since it might just be a typo or some other one-off affair, and a feature that occurs a lot, but is entirely run-of-the-mill is also not particularly useful. In other words, one alone isn’t evidence enough by itself, and something that’s only weakly consistently distinctive will need to be backed up by a range of other strongly consistently distinct features.

In other words, some of the features found in the data occurred few times, or only once, and therefore must be viewed in light of other features which are markedly consistent and distinctive. When all these features are brought together by highlighting Jenny’s consistent, distinctive features in green, and the suspicious deviations from these in red, then we can start to see an interesting picture overall.

Texts from Jenny Nicholl Suspicious Texts
01 Sum black+pink k swiss shoes and all the other shit like socks.We r goin2the indian.Only16quid.What u doin x 12 Thought u wer grassing me up.mite b in trub wiv me dad told mum i was lving didnt give a shit.been2 kessick camping was great.ave2 go cya
02 Yeah shud b gud i just have2get my finga out and do anotha tape wil do it on sun.will seems keen2x 13 Hi jen tel jak i am ok know ever 1 s gona b mad tell them i am sorry.living in scotland wiv my boyfriend.shitting meself dads gona kill me mum dont give a shite.hope nik didnt grass me up.keeping phone of.tell dad car jumps out of gear and stalls put it back in auction.tell him i am sorry
03 Shit is it.fuck icant2day ive allready booked2go bowling.cant realy pull out wil go2shop and get her sumet soon.thanx4tdlin me x 14 Y do u h8 me i know mum does.told her i was goin.i aint cumin back and the pigs wont find me.i am happy living up here.every1 h8s me in rich only m8 i got is jak.txt u couple wks tell pigs i am nearly 20 aint cumin back they can shite off
04 No reason just seing what ur up2.want2go shopping on fri and2will‘s on sun if ur up2it 15 She got me in this shit its her fault not mine get blame 4evrything.i am sorry ok just had 2 lve shes a bitch no food in always searching me room eating me sweets.ave2 go ok i am very sorry x
05 Sorry im not out2nite havnt seen u 4a while aswel ru free2moro at all x
06 No im out wiv jak sorry it took me so long ive had fone off coz havnt got much battery
07 Only just turned my fone havnt lied bout anything.no it doesnt look good but ur obviously jst as judgemental than the rest.cu wen i cu&i hope its not soon
08 I havnt lied2u.anyway im off back2sleep
09 I know i waved at her we wer supposed2go at4but was a buffet on later on so waited.anyway he had a threesome it was great cu around
10 Im tierd of defending myself theres no point.bye
11 Happy bday!will b round wiv ur pressent2moz sorry i cant make it2day.cu2moz xxx

4 – Conclusion
The whole investigation took three years to come to court, but finally, on the 19th of February 2008, after a four week trial, Hodgson was found guilty of Jenny’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. His subsequent appeal on the 31st of March 2009 was also turned down. Hodgson still refuses to say what happened to Jenny or where her remains can be found, though the police suspect that they are somewhere on the Moors.

After the trial, the judge, Mr Justice Openshaw, said that:

“After he killed her, the defendant retained her mobile phone and on two separate days sent bogus text messages from the phone – as if from her – first to her friends and then to her father, cruelly pretending that she was still alive and that she had run away. He was of course intending, thereby, to prevent the missing person inquiry turning into a murder investigation.”[ref]

Hodgson made some subsequent appeal attempts, also employing a forensic linguist as part of his defence[ref], however these attempts have failed.

5 – References
BBC News (2008) The case for forensic linguistics.
Coulthard, Malcolm and Johnson, Alison (2007). An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence. Oxon: Routledge.
Jenny Nicholl’s Blog (2011) Jenny Nicholl.

6 – Postscript
No notes.