2023 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Words of Conviction: Tracing a Junk Science Through the Justice System

About the Project

ProPublica reporter Brett Murphy first heard about “911 call analysis” when poking around a district attorney’s office accused of botching a murder case in Louisiana. On its face, the technique seemed pretty ludicrous. Police and prosecutors who’d taken a class purported that they could divine truth and deception, guilt and innocence, from the word choice, cadence and even grammar of people reporting emergencies. Too long of a pause, a phrase of politeness during a call, they believed, could reveal a killer.

The consensus among experts was that none of this had any scientific basis. Murphy was propelled by a question: Was 911 call analysis really being used to help put people in prison?

So he set out to track in real time how far this junk science had embedded itself in the justice system, who was spreading it and whom it has been used against. The resulting stories were singular feats of reporting, a brilliant use of public records laws and tenacity to expose the lengths prosecutors and police will go to close a case.

ProPublica’s monthslong investigation, “Words of Conviction,” reveals how people have been wrongfully accused and convicted of murder after someone misinterpreted their call for help, while the police and prosecutors who used 911 call analysis against them face virtually no consequences. The FBI, we found, was an incubator for the program. Other regulators at virtually every step of the justice system have promoted it as well.

Drawing on thousands of never-before-seen emails and other records, Murphy documented more than 100 cases in 26 states where law enforcement wielded 911 call analysis against unwitting defendants.

All of this was a shock to many attorneys, judges and legal experts, who were unaware of its use. Murphy discovered how prosecutors and other law enforcement officials have kept 911 call analysis secret: They disguise it as anything but “science” to avoid discovery obligations and outside scrutiny.

The reporting culminated in a two-part series. Murphy’s first story is a gripping narrative about Jessica Logan, a young mother convicted of killing her baby after a detective analyzed her 911 call. We found several other problems in her prosecution, as well.

Shortly after publication, the Supreme Court of Illinois agreed to take another look at Logan’s case. In addition, exoneration attorneys offered to represent Logan in her appeal, which will likely focus on the new evidence uncovered by Murphy. Forensics experts have also begun using the article to teach new district attorneys the dangers of prosecuting crimes the wrong way.

Murphy’s second story profiles Harpster and names the institutions that embraced and enabled him. We found that prosecutors know that 911 call analysis is junk science but have snuck it into court anyway to win convictions. The agencies responsible for ensuring fair police work and trials, including the judiciary itself, have not only allowed Harpster’s methods to spread far and wide but have also legitimized them by certifying and funding his program with taxpayer dollars.