What is a document?

In today’s society, everyone knows what a document is.

After all, documents are used routinely for all manner of purpose. Documents that most people would recognize include typed, hand-printed, handwritten, or produced using commercial processes. Letters, contracts, newspapers, magazines, and all manner of items are documents. A common definition might be something like:

a paper or set of papers with written or printed information, especially of an official type

Cambridge Dictionary Online

Forensic document examiners, however, apply a broader definition. We define a document as “any material bearing marks, signs, or symbols, whether visible or not, intended to convey a message or meaning to someone.” Clearly, that definition includes all normal documents, but extends it quite a bit.

This means a few things.

First, almost anything can become a document whether or not it was intended to serve as a document in the first place.

Second, a document examiner must be trained to deal with a lot of different instruments, marking materials, and substrates.

Third, a document examiner must be trained to assess a wide variety of events that may affect different types of documents, before, during, or after their initial production.

All in all, it contributes to the complexity of the work of a forensic document examiner.

What is “forensic document examination”?

The short answer is that Forensic Document Examination, aka questioned document examination (or FDE/QDE), is the forensic science that deals with documents in dispute or in question.  There are, of course, many different types of documents and many different aspects of a document that might be in question.

As the AAFS website describes it,

Questioned document examination, also referred to as forensic document examination, is the branch of forensic science best known for the determination of authorship of signatures and handwriting but, in fact, involves much more comprehensive analyses of writing instruments, writing mediums, and office machine products.

Most of the time questioned documents are relevant to some dispute between parties, and very often that dispute will be legal in nature.

At other times, sometimes a particular aspect of a document is ‘in question’. For example, in genealogical research or when dealing with other ‘historical’ documents, the issue is whether markings can be made more visible, or determining how a document was constructed or changed.   You can learn more about this on my About FDE page.

What is the “logical approach” to evidence evaluation?

The logical approach to evidence evaluation is an assessment process that focuses on the evidence, rather than directly addressing any propositions that might ‘explain’ that evidence. In other words, the examiner uses their expert knowledge and ability to determine the likelihood of the evidence (under competing hypotheses or propositions). Likelihood in this context means the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypotheses of interest. It is a system of logical reasoning.

I’ve posted on this topic a few times. Be sure to read my “Introduction to the Logical Approach to Evidence Evaluation”, as well as “Propositions — key to the evaluation process” and “When is a ‘Bayesian’ not a ‘Bayesian’?” This approach to evidence evaluation is also explained in the ENFSI Guideline for Evaluative Reporting.

How is proof of specimen material achieved?

Specimen material is needed for any comparison process and, to have that material admitted into evidence, it must be ‘proven’ to a trier (i.e., judge or adjudicator) who decides whether not to admit the samples. Basically, this means the specimen samples must be shown, in some way, to have been produced by someone or something in particular. Adequate ‘proof’ of origin is necessary for them to be used, and relied upon, as examples of writing (or output) from a specific source.

This issue manifests whenever the matter proceeds to a trial or adjudication. However, knowing that this is a concern, and knowing that such information will have to be given as ‘proof’ of the history or origin of a document, consideration should always be given to it from the start of the process. There is no benefit to working with unproven or dubious material. In other words, the issue of ‘proof’ of source should be considered and addressed for every sample of specimen material used in any comparison.

So, who needs to do this? In brief, ’proof’ of a document must come from some other party, and not from the forensic document examiner, as a general rule. This issue is something the client, or their legal representative, should be considering as they collect or obtain specimen material for examination purposes.

How can a specimen sample be ‘proven’? Some ways to prove authorship of a document include:

  1. simple admission by the author of the document when asked if they produced it;
  2. testimony of someone who saw the writing done (i.e., a witness to the writing). This applies, for example, when obtaining specimen writing of a “request” nature;
  3. testimony of someone who heard the writer admit that they wrote the document. This could be #1 above, but also applies in a more historical sense;
  4. testimony of someone “intimately familiar” with a person’s writing (e.g., a husband, wife, or business partner may be able to provide such testimony for the other); or
  5. as normal and accepted practice for any particular type of document. For example, business documents routinely prepared in the name of a person, or signed by that person, may generally be used as examples of their writing so long as the documents were produced in the normal course of business and have not been challenged in the past by the person named.

Remember: The client (investigator or lawyer) has the responsibility of providing proof of this nature to the court, through one of the above means. This often means that other witnesses will need to be called who can personally attest to the matter based on their personal knowledge. It is not the responsibility of the examiner to do this (unless, of course, the examiner was involved in the acquisition of the samples; e.g., obtaining request specimen samples).

Related questions:

What is a specimen/exemplar?

The words ‘known’, ‘exemplar’, ‘specimen’ are essentially equivalent and used to describe materials or samples of ‘proven’ provenance or origin. There are many things that can be determined from questioned material entirely on its own, but questions relating to any source attribution require samples of a ‘proven’ nature, (i.e., known, specimen, or exemplar material) for comparison purposes. 

Specimen samples must be obtained by the client in most situations. Along with the questioned sample they would then be provided to the examiner. 

Obtaining appropriate and adequate specimen samples is critical to an effective examination. Please contact the examiner to discuss the collection and submission of such material PRIOR to obtaining them. 

There are two main types of specimen samples that may be considered: ‘collected’ and ‘request’. Pros and cons of each are discussed below:

Collected samples are exemplars produced in the course of routine day-to-day activities by the suspect individual or device. 

The first advantage of collected samples is they are representative of the normal, routine behaviour of the individual/device and are not (likely) to be disguised or distorted in some way. This refers to any sample that was produced in the course of daily business or routine, without consideration for later examination. Another advantage is that such samples may be historical in nature (i.e,, having been produced on some date in the past) and representative of the behaviour at that time (e.g., handwriting or signature samples for a deceased person). Yet another advantage is the potential to locate exemplars under specific conditions or circumstances that cannot be replicated at the present time. On the ‘negative’ side of things, collected samples may not be completely comparable to the questioned samples in terms of the precise conditions or content of the material in question. While the samples may represent the individual/device’s ‘habitual’ behaviour at the time of production, the samples will not help if the questioned material is of a different type, nature, or content. The biggest ‘negative’ for collected samples is proof of source. It is important that some ‘proof’ of the source of the sample be possible. This can be achieved in many ways but it something the client needs to consider; it cannot be done by the examiner.

Request samples  are those produced at the request of the investigator (or client) and for the express purpose of being examined. The key advantage of these samples is that they can be customized to provide comparability to the questioned samples in terms of content, nature, and (sometimes) conditions. As such, request samples often provide the best direct comparability to questioned samples. Proof of source is also a non-issue as it can be given by the person obtaining the samples. On the ‘negative’ side of things, request samples may not be available — either because the individual refuses to provide any, or they are not able to do so (i.e., a person has passed away or the device is not longer in-service). In addition, samples that are not contemporaneous may not display the same features/habits simply due to changes over time. Finally, request samples may not be able to replicate every aspect of the original conditions. 

Ultimately, collected and request samples are complementary to one another. So an ideal submission will have both types. 

One last note:  in some situations it may be possible to have the examiner obtain the specimen ‘request’ samples from a suspect, or to assist in the process. Doing so would generally require a ‘remote’ visit. If this is desired, please discuss the matter beforehand with the examiner. 

Related FAQs:

Is every handwriting sample ‘identifiable’?

No, it is not always possible to identify (or eliminate) the writer of every sample of handwriting.

Handwriting and signatures can be a powerful and significant indicator of identity.  Handwriting is, in fact, one of the best forms of personal identification. However, that does not mean that every sample of writing can be identified or associated to a specific person or suspect.  The strength of association (or non-association) depends entirely upon the quality of samples used for the comparison.

A meaningful and effective comparison and evaluation requires a sufficient amount of comparable material (both questioned and specimen in nature) with writing that has been executed in a normal and natural manner while displaying adequate complexity and skill. If any of those conditions are not fully met, then the evaluation and final conclusion is likely to be limited.

For example, some people write their signature or handwriting in a very simplistic style or manner with very little complexity in graphical formation. Alternatively (or at the same time), they may write with poor fluency and execution. Writing done in that manner is relatively easy to simulate or copy. Furthermore, low complexity, or unskilled, writing may also possess limited ‘individuality’ meaning there will be a higher chance of coincidental similarities with the writing of some other person.

These factors, among others, must be taken into account when doing a comparison.  The bottom line is that good samples make for a  good comparison providing the best chance of success when assessing potential authorship.

What is Evaluative reporting?

Evaluative reporting refers to the expression (written or verbal) of an opinion conforming to the logical approach to evidence evaluation.1

In short:

Evaluative reporting is a formalised thought process that enables the evaluation of scientific findings given two opposing (or competing) propositions. It is a way of providing a strength of the findings of an examination given those alternative propositions.

Ballantyne, K., et al. (2017). An Introductory Guide to Evaluative Reporting, National Institute of Forensic Science Australia New Zealand

NIFS-AU download link:  https://www.anzpaa.org.au/ArticleDocuments/220/An%20Introductory%20Guide%20to%20Evaluative%20Reporting.PDF.aspx

Another useful reference is the ENFSI Guideline for Evaluative Reporting: Strengthening the Evaluation of Forensic Results across Europe (STEOFRAE) report. It states, in part:

Evaluative reporting evaluates the forensic findings in the light of at least one pair of propositions. It is based on a likelihood ratio and conforms to the principles of evaluation. Most of the time, evaluative reporting will follow from comparative examinations between material of unknown source and reference material from one or more potential source(s) and/or associated activities. An evaluative report is any forensic expert report containing an evaluative reporting section.

Willis, S. M., et al. (2015). ENFSI Guideline for Evaluative Reporting: Strengthening the Evaluation of Forensic Results across Europe (STEOFRAE), European Network of Forensic Science Institutes.

ENFSI download link: https://enfsi.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/m1_guideline.pdf

What are common methods of ‘forgery’?

As a rule, most FDEs refrain from using the word ‘forgery’ in their work.

To most people a ‘forgery’ refers to the production of a false document; an illegitimate document, signature, banknote, or work of art, for example. That concept is correct in everyday use, but the word also has a legal connotation that extends further.

In most legal contexts, ‘forgery’ involves “the creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent to defraud.” It is the latter part of that definition, relating to ‘intent’, that bothers some FDEs. To a degree, their concern relates, in part, to the traditional approach taken by FDEs where a conclusion addresses the propositions directly (i.e., the document is or is not a forgery, with some degree of probability thrown in for good measure), rather than speaking to the evidence given the propositions (i.e., as is done in the logical approach to evidence evaluation). 

Of course, it is impossible to speak directly to the issue of the ‘intent to defraud’, regardless of which approach is used. That is something the Court must address based on all the evidence presented to them. As a result, rather than using the word ‘forgery’, examiners will talk about the manner in which a document has been produced and determine whether or not it is consistent with the legitimate production methods and events.1 

Now, having said the above, the most common methods encountered in handwriting cases where ‘forgery’ is of concern to the Court would be a tracing or free-hand simulation of writing on a document, either extended writing or a signature. Other forms of fraudulent document often encountered involve an alteration to some facet of an otherwise legitimate document, or the production of a completely illegitimate document (i.e., a spurious or counterfeit document).

What is Graphology? Are you a graphologist?

A common definition for graphology is simply ‘the examination of handwriting to assess personality or character traits of the writer’.

The SWGDOC site states that examiners must be “actively engaged in the practice of forensic document examination” with the following explanation relative to graphology:

Forensic document examination is not synonymous with graphology. Graphology or graphoanalysis attempts to predict character traits from handwriting examination. Some graphologists call themselves handwriting analysts or document examiners and are therefore confused with FDEs. In U.S. v. Bourgeois, 950 F. 2d 980 (5‘h Cir. 1992), the court rejected the testimony of a proffered handwriting examiner, in part, because the individual’s training was completed through a correspondence school and its strong emphasis on graphoanalysis. It also pointed out that the witness was not certified by the ABFDE.ASTM also differentiates forensic document examination from graphology. Standard E444-98 states, “[f]orensic document examination does not involve the employment of calligraphic or engrossing skills, nor does it involve a study of handwriting in an attempt to create a personality profile or otherwise analyze or judge the writer’s personality or character.”

Under that definition, I am definitely not a graphologist. A forensic document examiner examines handwriting to address issues of potential authorship, not personality. Of course, forensic document examination covers a lot more things than just authorship of writing.

NOTE:  various terms are used and considered to be synonymous to graphology, including graphometry, graphometrics, graphanalysis, or graphoanalyis.

What is the ASQDE?

The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) is a professional society established in 1913 making it the oldest organization in the world dedicated to the profession of forensic document examination, with a legitimate claim to also being the largest such organization. 

The objectives for the Society were to “foster education, sponsor scientific research, establish standards, exchange experiences, and provide instruction in the field of questioned document examination, and to promote justice in matters that involve questions about documents.”1 One of the most valuable activities for the Society is their annual scientific meeting held in various locations. 

For more info, please visit www.asqde.org.