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Bar Journal - March 1, 2001

Understanding Questioned Document Examinations

By:

Overlooked and misunderstood by many, questioned document examination (QDE) can provide valuable evidence of fraud, dishonesty and in some cases murder. In recent high profile cases involving the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh and the New Hampshire murder of Candi Martel, QDE experts played a major role in the development of critical evidence in the investigations. This article will offer advice for attorneys on how to find qualified and reputable QDE experts that can meet the vigorous courtroom challenges opposing the admissibility of their findings.

To effectively develop questioned document evidence, an attorney needs to understand exactly who are QDE experts, what are the basic theoretical principles of document examination, what impact has recent post-Daubert criticism had on the testimony of QDE experts and how to find the right QDE expert for their particular case. Understanding this information is critical for tapping into the wealth of evidence found in questioned documents and effectively developing this evidence in your cases.

WHAT IS A QUESTIONED DOCUMENT EXAMINER?

As recently as 1993, in Ordway Hilton's book, Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, the simple definition of QDE required an explanation regarding the distinction between QDE experts and handwriting examination experts:

"Document Examiner. One who studies scientifically the details and elements of documents in order to identify their source or to discover other facts concerning them. Document examiners are often referred to as handwriting identification experts, but today the work has outgrown this latter title and involves other problems than merely the examination of handwriting."1 

It was not until 1972, when a group of QDE experts in government and private practice joined with the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) to adopt a published job description for QDE experts. The ASTM designation E444-98,2 revised in 1998, defines the general duties performed by QDE experts:

  1. The identification of handwriting, typewriting.
  2. The identification or elimination of the source of, and the output of, other mechanical or electronic imaging devices such as printers, copy machines, facsimile equipment and the like.
  3. The identification or elimination of inks, paper, and writing instruments.
  4. The establishment of the date, source, history, sequence of preparation, alterations or additions to documents, and relationship of documents.
  5. Other problems are the decipherment and sometimes the restoration, or both of obscured, deleted or damaged parts of documents.
  6. The work often includes a study of the information carried by a document for discovery of evidence of spuriousness, identification of persons, or to show significant relationships.

This is a diverse area of forensic sciences requiring well-trained professionals with specialized skills. A QDE expert's work requires access to equipment typically associated with scientific laboratories. The types of equipment forensic document examiners use are hand magnifiers, stereoscopic microscopes, cameras with special filters, computer imaging devices, Video Spectral Comparators that use ultraviolet and infra-red irradiation for ink examination, Electrostatic Detection Apparatus for visualizing indented writing, and test grids for typewriter examinations.

With this equipment, a properly trained QDE expert can provide detailed information about the substances comprising a questioned document, such as inks and paper. The primary goals for examination of these substances are: (1) to determine information about their source; (2) to determine if substances being compared are similar or different; (3) to determine the age of the substance. The following is a brief explanation of some of the substances examined by QDE experts:

Paper - Most paper is identified by the manufacturer's watermark that is visible by backlighting the paper. A reference library, such as the Lockwood Directory, helps identify the manufacturer and date the paper was produced. If a watermark is not available, QDE experts use the chemical, physical and optical analysis to categorize paper for later comparison. Analysis of paper is used to determine information about its source, determine the paper's age, and if it is similar or different to the known paper sample. Example: Examination of a multiple page contract to determine if a spurious page was inserted.

Ink - QDE experts use chemical and optical analysis to determine the compositional profile of inks. They compare the ink's profile with a reference library of thousands of inks that are categorized by manufacturer, earliest dates produced, and compositional profile. Analysis of inks is used to determine information about their source, determine its age and if it is similar or different to the known ink sample. Example: Ink analysis is effective in identifying forged historical documents by determining if the ink on the document was available on the purported date of the document.

Printers and Typewriter - QDE experts identify three basic conditions common to both the questioned document and the known document to establish the identity of the source typewriter or printer. These conditions are the same size type, the identical typeface design and a similar combination of defective and correctly produced letters and characters.4 The ultimate identification rests on the weight of the accumulated evidence within the known and questioned documents. The lack of defects produced by modern computer printers has drastically limited the QDE experts' abilities in this area.5 Example: Comparison of a typewritten endorsement on a check to exemplars taken from a suspect's typewriter can identify the source typewriter.

Photocopiers - Using visual and microscope analysis of photocopied documents, a QDE expert can identify "trash marks" on the documents that serve as a means of identifying the photocopier that produced both of the documents. The term "trash marks" refers to dirt, lint, fibers, hairs, smudges, roller marks, defects and gripper marks that appear on the photocopies. Example: An anonymous letter (photocopied) maybe traced to a particular photocopier, by obtaining sufficient exemplars from the suspect photocopier.

Indent writing - Indent writing are the small, virtually invisible indentations pressed into paper by the force of writing on the sheet above. An Electrostatic Detection Apparatus, using similar technology as photocopiers, is the primary method for visualizing indented writing. Example: An anonymous document can be traced to the author by linking indented writings to the suspected author.

In addition to the above list, QDE experts are trained in identifying many other substances on questioned documents such as: writing instruments; correcting fluids; adhesives; alterations; staple holes; perforations; seals and stamps. With each of these substances, document examiners can determine if they have a common origin as a known sample of the substance. If a questioned document has erasures, eradications, obliterations and paper striations, a QDE expert has the ability to reconstruct the document's original contents.

WHAT IS A GRAPHOLOGIST OR GRAPHOANALYST?

Graphology is defined as a detailed study of handwriting to reveal the character or personality traits of a writer. First practiced in Europe,6 graphology is typically used in pre-employment investigations, self-improvement, personal relationships, and by attorneys in jury selection. To many skeptics, the art of graphoanalysis is akin to astrology.7

The techniques developed by Milton Bunker in the early 1900's are called graphoanalysis. Based on Bunker's theories, graphoanalysts are trained in standardized methods of: (1) identification of writing strokes; (2) relating writing strokes to a specific personality trait; (3) determining the relative strength of the interrelated traits. Examples of graphology theories are that back slanted writers have introverted personalities and writers with heavy writing pressure are forceful, dynamic and productive individuals.

The International Graphoanalysis Society (IGA), the largest organization of handwriting analysts in the world, cautions members regarding the limitations of graphoanalysis. According to their literature, "Nothing in graphoanalysis enables us to diagnose a writer as specifically a stalker, abused, learning disabled, schizophrenic or mentally retarded."9 Graphologist further acknowledge that they cannot identify age, gender, race, religion, or if a person is right handed or left handed through handwriting analysis.10

With the large number of organizations certifying graphologists, and the absence of state or federal licensing in the United States for QDE experts, many graphologists serve as experts in QDE and handwriting examination. According to an association of graphologists called the National Association of Document Examiners, "A graphologist who has acquired a comprehensive knowledge of handwriting is particularly well suited for the examination of questioned documents."11 An attorney retaining the services of a QDE expert should understand the expert's training and background as a basis for evaluating their ability to handle a particular QDE engagement.

WHAT IS A HANDWRITING EXAMINER

The term handwriting examiner is generally reserved for individuals that are trained in determining if handwriting is genuine and identifying or eliminating possible authors of the handwriting. The background of handwriting examiners is divided between individuals trained in graphology, those trained in government forensic laboratories, and those trained in apprenticeship programs.

Many QDE experts believe that handwriting examination is more of an art than an exact science, with skill developed through years of training and experience.12 As Dr. Manfred Hecker, a forensic science researcher stated, "I must certainly make this qualification, forensic handwriting analysis cannot claim the ability to make universal statements. This would presuppose the existence of a complete and exhaustive scientific system that leaves no room for unanswered questions.13

Experienced professional handwriting examiners understand the subjective nature of their opinions, while at the same time striving to apply their skills based on scientific principles. The two general theories in handwriting examination are that no two individuals write alike and no one individual ever produces writing exactly the same way twice. These theories, although arguably unproven through statistical studies,14 are the axioms of the profession. To appreciate handwriting examination opinions one must understand the common sense principles that guide examiners.

The examination of a questioned writing requires making a side-by-side comparison with a known writing specimen. Known specimens, called standards, may be requested standards (exemplars) or they may be non-request standards which are prepared by the writer in the normal course of business, social or personal affairs. Either requested or non-requested standards are acceptable, provided they are sufficient for comparison. In obtaining exemplars, the following procedures should be considered:

  • Do not let the writer see the questioned writing.
  • Prepare a text for the writer that produces similar words, numbers or characters as in the questioned writing. Dictate the text to the writer, requiring they produce exemplars that match the questioned writing in terms of hand printing, cursive writing, upper case letters, lower case letters, and signatures.
  • Require the writer to use a similar writing instrument and type of paper as was used in the questioned writing. For example, when the questioned document is a check, the exemplar should be written on a blank check.
  • Have the writer reproduce the writing under the same conditions as existed when the questioned writing was prepared. For example, if the questioned document was prepared at a bank teller's window, the writer should prepare the exemplar while standing.

When the handwriting examiner conducts this comparison of the known writing to the questioned writing, careful attention is made to the speed, stroke structure, and overall appearance of the writing. Handwriting examiners identify forgeries by finding evidence of the writer's shakiness, tremors, pen lifts, and unusual letter formations that are outside of the writer's normal variation. An important skill for the examiner is the ability to distinguish between the natural variations in a person's writing as compared to indications of forgery.

RECENT CRITICISM

Following the 1993 US Supreme Court's decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals,15 critics of handwriting examination saw this decision as an opportunity to ban handwriting comparisons from the courtroom. The leading critics, are three law school professors, Mark Denbeaux, Michael Saks, and D. Michael Risinger, who published an article in 1989 entitled Exorcism of Ignorance as a Proxy for Rational Knowledge: The Lessons of Handwriting Identification Experts.16 In this article they argue there is no strong statistical evidence supporting or disproving the fundamental principles of handwriting examination and question the reliability of handwriting identification expertise.

In the 1995 Timothy McVeigh17 trial, the US Federal Court issued an unprecedented ruling that the government's QDE expert could present testimony on handwriting similarities and discrepancies between handwriting samples, but was not permitted to draw conclusions as to authorship. This ruling appears to completely undermine the evidentiary value of the QDE experts' handwriting analysis testimony.

According to a prosecutor in the McVeigh trial, "especially after Daubert, a prosecutor seeking to rely on document analysis for the identification of a questioned document's author can no longer simply wait for the expert to arrive in his office for a short preparatory session armed with the standard list of questions and answers. He then added: "In the face of restrictions that prevent experts from reporting some or all of their conclusions as opinion testimony, prosecutors and experts must find a way to teach the jurors to arrive at the same conclusions themselves."18 

In the May 1997 edition of the American Bar Journal an article written by Mark Hansen states "The field is now under fire like never before. In the last few years alone, the asserted claims of handwriting identification experts have become the subject of an increasingly bitter debate within the legal and scientific communities as well and the focus of a growing number of challenges to the admissibility of such evidence in the courts."19 

Recognizing the need to standardize document examination procedures, in 1999 the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examinations (SWGDOC), consisting of government examiners and those in private practice, issued a preliminary set of general guidelines and recommendations for technologies and procedures used by document examiners. This process of formalizing current practices for peer review was an important step in responding to the growing criticism towards QDE experts.

HIRING AN EXPERT

A search of legal journals, expert registries and advertisements finds that the terms forensic document examiner, handwriting examiner, and graphologist are used interchangeable. This has led to the public's confusion and general uncertainty about the profession.

In the United States, there are no college degree programs in the field of document examination, which has contributed to the proliferation of organizations issuing credentials in QDE. To the average person, many of these organizations have similar sounding names, including the following examples, that have tended to confuse the public:

American Board of Forensic Document Examiners
American Society of Forensic Document Examiners
American Board of Forensic Examiners
American College of Forensic Examiners
World Association of Document Examiners
National Association of Document Examiners

In the United States, the preeminent QDE organization, the American Board of Questioned Document Examiners (ABQDE), is the only national certifying organization of QDE experts that is recognized by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The ABQDE's leadership role is fragile because they reportedly have only 148 active Diplomat members in North America.20 The limited availability of ABQDE experts is apparent from their web site's directory that lists only one member in New England. Considering the potential demand for the QDE expert, this appears inadequate.

Lawyers seeking QDE experts must look beyond the credentials and professional associations of their experts. They must look carefully at the QDE expert's overall experience, training, professional affiliations, previous court opinions and record for correct opinions.21 QDE skills are acquired through experience from working in apprenticeship training programs taught by accepted leaders of the field. Matching your QDE expert's experience in handwriting examinations or in the forensic document laboratory with the needs of your particular case is critical.

CONCLUSION

QDE experts are facing immense scrutiny in the courtroom for their training, certification and technical practices. Much of this criticism is the result of the different factions of QDE organizations competing against each other and not working towards developing a unified entrance examination, code of ethics, standard examination principles, and peer review. While QDE experts offer attorneys a valuable service, care must be exercised in selecting the most, experienced, qualified, and reputable QDE expert available for your cases.

ENDNOTES

1. Hilton, Ordway, "Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents," CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 1993, p16.
2. American Society of Testing and Materials, "Scope of Work Related to Forensic Document Examination," Committee E-30, E444-98, original E444-72.
3. Cantu,Antonio, "Inks and Other Substances on Documents," US Secret Service, Jan. 23, 1989.
4. Hilton, Ordway, "Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents," CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 1993, p233.
5. Day, Steve, "Evidence Value of Ink-Jet Printers," Academy of Forensic Sciences, Sept. 2000.
6. Osborn, A.S., Questioned Documents, Boyd Publishing Co., New York, 1929, p437
7. Moenssens, Andre, "Graphology, Graphoanalysis and Handwriting Analysis," Forensic-Evidence.com, p1.
8. Moenssens, Andre, "Graphology, Graphoanalysis and Handwriting Analysis," Forensic-Evidence.com. p2.
9. International Graphoanalysis Society, www.igas.com.
10. Baggett, B., wwwmyhandwriting.com.
11. Tyrell, P, "Questioned Document Organizations and Groups" August 1996.
12. U.S. v. Starzecpzel, 880 F. Supp 1027 (S.D.N.Y. 1995).
13. Hecker, Manfred, "Handwriting and Science," paper distributed 2000.
14. Hecker, Manfred, "Handwriting and Science," paper distributed 2000.
15. Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. 113S Ct. 2786 (1993).
16. Mark Denbeaux, Michael Saks, and D. Michael Risinger, "Exorcism of Ignorance as a Proxy for Rational Knowledge: The Lessons of Handwriting Identification Experts" 137 U.Pa. L.Rev.731, 1989.
17. United States v. McVeigh and Nichols, 98-CR-68M, 1997 WL 47724(D.Colo. Feb. 5, 1997) .
18. J. Orenstein, "Effect of the Daubert Decision on Document Examinations From the Prosecutor's Perspective," U.S. Department of Justice, Forensic Science Communications, October 1999.
19. Hansen,M., "Handwriting Analysis Under Fire," ABA Journal, May 1997, pp76-78.
20. American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, membership directory, www.asqde.org.
21. Moore, David, "How to Select a Forensic Document Examiner," www.expertpages.com.

The Author

Brian F. Tierney, CPA, is a Research Financial Analyst with the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office and serving a supervised apprenticeship in handwriting examination with Ronald H. Rice the owner of Checkmate Forensic Services, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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