What can a forensic document examiner do for me?

If you are asking this question, I assume you have some type of ‘document’ that is in dispute or being questioned. The answer to what can be done for you depends upon 1) who you are, and 2) what question(s) you need answered.

who are YOU?

Immediate clients may be police investigators, legal counsel, corporations, or, in select cases, private individuals. Some examiners deal with all of these clients while others have a specific interest area. For example, examiners that work in publicly-funded laboratories often have a relatively restricted mandate of service (i.e., to their own agency or to a particular branch of government bodies/agencies). Examiners working privately will take cases from any most clients.

It is critical to note that no matter who the immediate client might be, the ultimate client is always the court. In fact, the reason forensic document examiners exist is to help the trier-of-fact understand the meaning of evidence taking the form of a questioned document. The examiner’s expertise is needed to inform the trier about what the evidence means in terms of the matter at hand.

This means that my duty is to the court before any other party, including the one paying the bill—even when the matter has not yet, and may never, make it to a trial or hearing. It is often said that you don’t buy an examiner’s opinion; you pay for their time and must live with the results, whatever they may be.

what question(s) do you need answered?

Investigators benefit from FDE advice when it helps them sort out what is likely to have happened in a given situation. Similarly, lawyers who must argue a case before the trier need to understand what the evidence means in terms of their own arguments and those of opposing counsel. The expert examiner can provide guidance, both verbal and written, in the form of an expert opinion.

Examiners will address questions of interest relating to a variety of disputed documents, such as: wills, deeds, medical records, income tax records, time sheets, contracts, loan agreements, election lists, cheques, anonymous letters, and so on.1 Those questions may relate to source attribution, manner of production, occurrences to documents, or other issues.

Examiners will also conduct reviews of casework done by other examiners. Such reviews may take the form of a formal re-evaluation of the evidence or focus on methods used and their application in the case at hand.

In addition, lawyers can benefit from an examiner’s knowledge of specialized literature in the field. Examiners may assist lawyers in preparing meaningful direct examination questions for their own experts or for cross-examination of an opposing expert.

When in doubt, contact me to find out what can be done for you. However, when doing so be careful to avoid providing unnecessary, or potentially biasing, information.

Can a preliminary examination be done based on faxed or emailed images?

From a technical point-of-view it is possible to use reproductions, such as faxed or emailed images, to conduct a preliminary examination of the material. In fact, it is possible to do a ‘complete’ examination and evaluation with such materials, but it places significant limitation on the result. It is definitely not recommended. Faxing, or more often emailing, images of documents may expedite the process slightly, but it is very important to understand that doing so has a significant downside.

Original items are always recommended for this type of work. The time spent in shipping the originals for examination is well worth it to ensure the best possible work gets done.

The Bottom Line: Any reproduction, including a fax, photocopy or PDF, is a somewhat limited representation of the original item. The degree of that limitation will vary from one instance/item to the next and may depend on what aspect of the document is in question. However, the results of any (preliminary) evaluation done using reproductions is unlikely to reflect the outcome of work performed on original items. In the event that a (preliminary) assessment is done, the resulting opinion must be expressed in a manner that reflects those limitations or qualifications. 

Whether or not that will suffice for the intended purpose is something the client must decide.

Can you recover erased writings?

“Erased writing” (or, an ‘erasure’) refers to a written entry/ies which has been removed in an attempt to get rid of the original information, either to simply delete it or replace it with something else.

An erasure may be achieved manually/mechanically using an eraser, some type of scraping tool, or using an adhesive lifting process (for select types of material). Alternatively, erasures may be achieved chemically through the application of a ‘bleaching’ solution, or some type of lifting agent.

Often the idea behind an erasure is to remove the information, ideally, leaving no significant indication any information was ever present, or that an erasure has occurred. This can be contrasted to an obliteration where the information is covered or masked, often in a relatively obvious manner.

With most erasures there will be physical or chemical signs that one has been done, albeit sometimes very subtle and difficult to see. At the same time, detecting this type of event is one thing. Recovering or deciphering the original information is another, often much more challenging, prospect.

Can you decipher obliterated writings?

The rate of success depends on several factors, but, yes, often it is possible to decipher an obliteration of some information on a document.

An “obliterated writing”, or ‘obliteration’, involves some entry or information covered or obscured by some other material—ink from the same or a different pen/marker, white-out material, paint, etc. The obliteration is done in an attempt to hide or mask the original information, for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons.

There are various methods that can be used to decipher original information.  These include microscopic examination, the application of special lighting and filters (spectral examination), or various other visualization methods.

As noted above, many factors come into play in the decipherment process with success depending upon the type of instrument(s) or obliterating material involved, the nature of the substrate, the process used for the obliteration and the degree to which it is done. As a result, there are times when it will be impossible to decipher (all of) the original entry.

What is ‘indented’ writing?

As the term suggests, “indented” writing is a type of indentation (i.e., physical impression or distortion) in a piece of paper that occurs when writing is produced on one piece of paper while it is resting on another piece (or a pile) of paper. Such indentations or impressions may be visible (i.e., seen with the unaided eye, particularly when they are deep in the paper), but most are ‘latent’ to some degree (i.e., not easily seen or even detected with the unaided eye). Latent indentations, in particular, often provide useful information because the writer is generally unaware of their existence.

Tests have shown that indentations may transfer through multiple sheets of paper positioned beneath the top-most sheet (i.e., the one where the visible writing is being done). In addition, such indentations can be very stable over time lasting weeks, months, or many years. Note that the stability of indentations is dependent upon the substrate material used, and the specific storage conditions.

Indentations may also occur for reasons other than writing by hand. In fact, whenever pressure is applied to the surface of paper it can produce an indentation. For example, paper passing through a printing device often has latent indentations relating to the transport and paper-handling mechanisms.

There are other sources of markings that may look like indentations. Therefore, care must be exercised when interpreting, deciphering, or sourcing indentations.

There are various methods for non-destructive detection and/or decipherment of latent indentations, including side/oblique low-angle lighting or the use of an Electrostatic Detection Device.

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:

Can you work with photocopied or faxed documents?

Yes, a forensic document examiner can work with a photocopied document, facsimile output, or other types of reproduction such as photographs.1 There are a couple of different situations where this might be a consideration.

First, some aspect of the reproduction itself may be in question. For example, the issue at hand may pertain to the manner of production, origin or source of a copy:

  • is the document a copy of a particular original document?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on a particular machine?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on or about a specific purported date?
  • what type of device was used to produce the document (i.e., reproduction)?
  • has the document (i.e., copy) been altered, relative to the source document?
  • is this document an original or a reproduction? (yes, this can be an issue)

In these types of situations the document itself is the focus of the examination or comparison. Hence, the fact it is a reproduction should not limit the examination or be a concern.

Second, the issue may involve a comparison between questioned and known/exemplar samples to assess potential source. In this situation, original documents are always better, if they are available.

There will be times when a reproduction is the only copy available. In those instances a meaningful examination may still be possible; however, the reproduced nature of the item may place some limitation on the examination. The critical issue is the quality of reproduction and poor quality copies can be a significant limiting factor. Poor quality reproductions simply do not display all of the features the examiner must assess. That applies whether the issue relates to handwriting (e.g., questions about authorship) or machine printing (e.g., questions about source).

In particular, and as noted above, if the issue relates to authorship of handwriting or a signature, then it is always best to have the original document, rather than any reproduction.2

Another factor that arises with a reproduction is the possibility that some element appearing in the document (e.g., writing or a signature) may have been ‘inserted’ into a document via a “cut-and-paste” process, either through electronic/digital or manual means. Such activities can be difficult to detect or assess when working with a copy.

In summary, while a reproduction may place limits on certain types of examination it does not preclude an evaluation and assessment in every situation.  Always discuss the matter with the examiner.

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 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.

Is ‘bias’ a concern in Forensic Science?

The short answer to this question is ‘yes’, bias is a concern. However, that is far too simplistic a response.

The bottom line is that every examiner must be aware of the potential for bias in their work, the various ways in which it may manifest, and what can and should be done to minimize such concerns. At an absolute minimum, examiners must be able to explain any steps they have taken to achieve that goal so that the trier can be assess the effectiveness of any such steps. The steps taken will undoubtedly differ for a private examiner working alone, versus a larger laboratory with considerably more resources and mechanisms they might employ.

In general, ‘bias’ is a potential concern for any and every human endeavour that involves or requires evaluation and reasoning. Since every forensic evaluation is a human-based activity involving mainly subjective assessment (even in those situations where there might be an empirical basis to support that assessment), it follows that the potential for bias will be present. It also follows that every examiner needs to be aware of this prospect when doing their work.

On the positive side of things, examiners that follow published guidelines and best practice documents will be utilizing procedures that are designed to help minimize this type of concern. For example, examiners applying the logical approach to evidence evaluation must expressly consider (and disclose) relevant framework information, as well as all relevant propositions considered in the course of their evaluation. Doing so reduces the potential for bias in the evaluation process.