Forewarned…

Forewarned is forearmed or, if Latin is your thing, “praemonitus, praemunitus”. So the saying goes and clearly there is great value in knowing what lies ahead for us. If we know what is coming our way we can, in theory, prepare properly for any challenge.

Challenges are nothing new to forensic scientists. Critics routinely point out issues they perceive with various forensic disciplines. Some of those criticisms are fair and reasonable, others are not. Much of the critical commentary affects a discipline as a whole demanding an overall, or group, response by members of each discipline. In my experience, disciplines are generally behind the curve in their responses to critics. Nonetheless, over time some issues have been addressed, at least partially if not completely, through empirical research.  Others have not. To be fair, the activities needed to properly address the critics are not trivial and require both time and resources; scarce commodities in modern forensic labs. Overall, things are improving, albeit very slowly.

Criticism takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a court of law. Indeed, I think that criticism is the essence of cross-examination — a fundamental and important aspect of any adversarial justice system. Although essential, it is rarely an enjoyable part of the proceedings for any expert.

I find cross-examination to be the most interesting part of any witness’ time on the stand because they must answer whatever question is posed to them by ‘opposing’ (i.e., unfriendly) counsel. Criticism often begins very personal and has a practical tone since forensic examiners must answer serious questions about their own work. Truly the rubber meets the road during cross-examination.

Sometimes the witness can anticipate a line of questioning but, in general, it is rare that one knows what will come next. I don’t think that bothers any truly ‘expert’ witness. They are, after all, supposed to be knowledgeable about everything within the scope of their domain. In a way, it’s just part and parcel of being an expert. Still, it is nice to have some idea of what might be coming…

In that regard, an article published in the Australian Bar Review journal could be seen by forensic examiners as an early Christmas present. The paper is entitled “How to cross-examine forensic scientists: A guide for lawyers” written by an esteemed collection of academics including Professor Gary Edmond, Kristy Martire, and Richard Kemp, among several others.1

The article provides the reader with an excellent summary of various criticisms that can be raised in cross-examination of a (forensic) expert witness, with the focus in the article being “the identification (or comparison) sciences”; those pertaining to identity/origin/source of some sample or trace. While it provides little in the way of truly novel criticism, it does a great job outlining both general and specific issues presenting them in a very useful and practical way. The abstract reads:

This article is a resource for lawyers approaching the cross-examination of forensic scientists (and other expert witnesses). Through a series of examples, it provides information that will assist lawyers to explore the probative value of forensic science evidence, in particular forensic comparison evidence, on the voir dire and at trial. Questions covering a broad range of potential topics and issues, including relevance, the expression of results, codes of conduct, limitations and errors, are supplemented with detailed commentary and references to authoritative reports and research on the validity and reliability of forensic science techniques.

What better way to be forewarned than to read such recommendations and prepare a response to each and every one of them? In my opinion, every forensic examiner should be able to answer the questions posed in this article. Some are ‘easy ‘, others not so much.
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The ‘best’ textbook ever written about forensic handwriting identification…

Okay, determining the ‘best’ of anything is always a challenge. It is, in almost every instance, a highly subjective decision based on some set of appealing features or characteristics… appealing to the person making the determination, of course. And, because this is my blog, that person happens to be me.

In fairness, there are a number of authors who have written extensively on the topic: Osborn, Ellen, Hilton, Harrison, Hilton, among others (and I apologize to those I have left off this list). I have read all of those textbooks (including most editions) and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Nonetheless, in my opinion the best general textbook written to date on the topic of handwriting identification was done by co-authors Roy A. Huber and A.M. (Tom) Headrick, both long-time document examiners in the R.C.M. Police laboratory system.

That textbook is Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals.1

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Can of worms…

When someone “opens a can of worms” it usually spells trouble. Worms in a canFor many people, that phrase evokes a powerful image of a writhing mess of worms escaping from a previously-sealed, but now opened, can or container. With the result of such action being serious problems for the owner of said can, often problems of an unanticipated or uncertain nature. In the context of our work as Forensic Document Examiners I sometimes hear this in discussions of how to handle questions on the stand. The advice goes along the lines of ‘keep your answers simple and say as little as possible in order to limit any opportunity for questions from the other side.’

It is suggested that lengthy or complex answers will only lead to more questions and more discussion. The latter are the proverbial “can of worms” that one must strive to avoid opening.

That makes little sense to me.
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2014 ASQDE-ASFDE Panel Discussion “Conclusions…”

ASQDE ASFDE logos
The 2014 ASQDEASFDE conference included an interesting panel discussion with the title “Conclusions… Signature and Handwriting Conclusion Terminology and Scales”. I was fortunate to be able to take part, albeit only remotely via Skype.

The abstract for the session was as follows:

A current and global issue in our field is the topic of conclusion terminology and conclusion scales, particularly in respect of signature and handwriting conclusions. It is an important yet difficult topic to address because, while there is some commonality in the conclusion scales used in different geographical regions around the world, within a number of geographical regions there are multiple scales in use. It is for this very reason that it is also a topic in great need of discussion and there is a strong argument that we should attempt to reach a consensus (even if the result is that we agree to disagree).

This panel discussion is a collaboration of insights from numerous colleagues in our field in person, via Skype and in writing from private and government laboratories in geographical regions across the Americas, Australia, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
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