I am happy to answer questions about forensic document examination, forensic science, or my work.
Feel free to send me a question and I’ll do my best to answer it. Be sure to check out the FAQs below, too.
There are a lot of textbooks about Forensic Document Examination, discussing both handwriting and non-handwriting. Most laboratories and private examiners have extensive collections and libraries. Additionally, if you are interested in some historical textbooks, please check out a great resource, the A.S.Q.D.E. Digital Library, with links to the following classic texts:
- Questioned Documents (1910), Albert S. Osborn
- The Problem of Proof (1922), Albert S. Osborn
- Ames on Forgery (1901), Daniel T. Ames
- Disputed Handwriting (1894), William E. Hagan
- Classification & Identification of Handwriting (1922), C.D. Lee, R.A. Abbey
- The Early History of the Typewriter (1918), Charles Edward Weller
When it comes to recent publications, here are a few that I prefer, in no particular order:
Jan Seaman Kelly and Miriam Angel (eds). Forensic Document Examination in the 21st Century (CRC Press, 2020) ISBN: 9780367251550
Disclosure: I am the author of Chapter 3 on ‘The Logical Approach to Evidence Evaluation’. Link to Taylor & Francis Group info, including chapter abstracts (click here).
Roy A. Huber and A.M. Headrick. Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals (CRC Press, 1999) ISBN: 9780849312854
Linton Mohammed. Forensic Examination of Signatures, 1st Edition (Academic Press, 2019). ISBN: 9780128130292
Disclosure: I am the co-author of Chapter 12 on ‘Conclusions; Testimony’.
Michael P. Caligiuri and Linton A. Mohammed. The Neuroscience of Handwriting: Applications for Forensic Document Examination (CRC Press, 2012) ISBN: 9781439871409
Wilson R. Harrison. Suspect Documents: Their Scientific Examination (New York: Frederick A Praeger, 1958) ISBN:9780882297590
Jan Seaman Kelly, Brian S. Lindblom, eds. Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, Second Edition (CRC Press, 2006) ISBN: 9780849320446
David Ellen. Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, 3rd Edition (CRC Press, 1997) ISBN: 9780849339257
No, there are no licensing requirements for Forensic Document Examiners in the majority of jurisdictions in the United States or Canada, or in most other parts of the world. Some sort of licensing would have tremendous benefit by providing a degree of regulatory oversight. However, like other forensic disciplines, there is nothing at present for Forensic Document Examination work.
Therefore, please do not assume that anyone offering their services is truly qualified and competent. Check credentials carefully. To that end, look closely at any professional certification held by the examiner. Certification speaks to the competencies and capabilities of the examiner. In addition, review the examiner’s curriculum vitae (resume) carefully and always ask questions about anything in it.
Related blog post: Professional Certification
Historically, examiners have used the term ‘authorship’ when referring to the issue of who produced a questioned writing. More recently, the term ‘writership’ has appeared in the literature. One example is the Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach document (aka, the HFHE report; see this link and this link).
This is a point of contention insofar as forensic handwriting examiners address questions regarding the person who wrote a given sample of writing or a signature. Still, the distinction between the two terms may not be obvious, which is its own issue.
This is how the authors of the HFHE report explained their choice of terminology:
The term “author” often refers to the creator of the content of a writing. Thus, studies have examined who composed the specific essays in The Federalist Papers (Hamilton, A., J. Madison, and J. Jay. 1788. The Federalist. A Collection of Essays Written in Favour of the New Constitution as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787.) that appeared under the pseudonym of “Publius” and who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. “Authorship” in that sense is the subject of forensic linguistics (see, for example, Zheng R., Y. Qin, Z. Huang, and H. Chen. 2003. “Authorship Analysis in Cybercrime Investigation.” In Intelligence and Security Informatics, edited by H. Chen, R. Miranda, D.D. Zeng, C. Demchak, J. Schroeder, and T. Madhusudan. International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI) 2003. Lecture Notes in Computer Science 2665. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.) As the writer of a physical text might not have been the original author, the Working Group uses the more precise term “writership” throughout this report, rather than the broader term “authorship,” to denote the physical executor of the handwriting under examination.
On the one hand, this argument is reasonable. The term ‘writership’ may be more precise.
On the other hand, I think that few people are confused by the term ‘authorship’ when used to mean the actual person who physically wrote an entry. Those same people are unlikely to recognize the term ‘writership’; thus creating a potential source of confusion and, at a minimum, requiring explanation.
Hence, most examiners still use ‘authorship’ and see little need to change despite the potentially greater precision of the term ‘writership’. I personally switch between the two depending on my audience and their preference. I have no issue which word someone chooses to use so long as the underlying issue is clearly understood.
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.
Yes, in select circumstances a ‘remote’ examination may be done. By ‘remote’ I mean at some location other than in my personal laboratory.1 However, it is important to understand up-front that it is always preferable to undertake examinations in a proper laboratory setting where appropriate equipment is available, proper examination conditions are assured, and there are fewer time constraints as a rule.
If the material can be submitted for examination at the lab, it is always a better choice.
The most common justification for a remote examination is to gain access to documents that would be otherwise inaccessible.2 For example, some items are only available at a lawyer’s office, at a courthouse (if already presented into evidence or being held there for some other reason), or at another examiner’s laboratory. Many institutions, for a variety of reasons, but often relating to security of the items, do not wish to release original documents to anyone outside their control. Instead, they will offer copies, sometimes certified and sometimes not. As noted elsewhere, working with reproductions is always less than ideal and may result in an inconclusive opinion simply because the information provided by the copies is too limited.
To address such issues a remote examination may be proposed. The client must understand that remote examinations are not ideal and may be an expensive proposition. Certain types of analyses or examination are possible using portable equipment with only limited or minimal impact on the outcome; other types of analyses will be affected and still others may be entirely precluded.
To minimize problems during a remote examination, it is important to arrange for a private, quiet room away from other activities. That room should have regular (and reliable) electrical supply, good lighting, a comfortable chair, and a solid table or desk large enough to hold the items and equipment to be used.
Beyond this, sufficient time must be provided. Note that the time required for an examination depends on many factors. However, any time an examiner is ‘rushed’, they will have to adjust the examination accordingly and this may have a negative impact on the end result.
Finally, remote examinations usually require travel as well as appropriate accommodations and meals for the duration of any stay. Such costs can add considerably to the final tally for the service.
To determine whether or not a remote examination is warranted in your case, and for an estimate of the costs involved, please contact us to discuss the matter in detail.
- Note some people refer to this as an ‘off-site examination’ considering their own laboratory to be the main site for such work. Others will call this an ‘on-site examination’ referring to the client’s location as the ‘site’.
- Another reason for such work might be to assist in obtaining specimen samples from a suspect individual. That activity does not usually involve any on-site examination of material.
In general, the answer to this is ‘no’. However, there are some specific exceptions that might apply in your case. I’ll get to those possibilities shortly, but first it is important to clarify the main issue at hand.
First, like other professionals I do not work for free and I expect to be paid fairly for my time and efforts. To protect everyone’s interests I require a formal (signed) work agreement between the parties; specifically the client and myself. An estimate of costs will be provided before the agreement is finalized, and before actual work begins. Finally, I require a deposit payment to be made before I commence work.
Further to this, I will be officially retained on a matter only after the agreement is signed and received at my office, and after the deposit payment has been made.
Second, there is no way to form an opinion until the work is actually done. At best, it is possible to assess potential limitations to determine what material will be required for an effective examination.
Please understand that no qualified document examiner will ever give an opinion after simply ‘eye-balling’ something; that isn’t how it works. I provide top-quality service and my reputation rests on providing the best possible analysis and opinion.
Third, most people come to me with their own opinion on a matter. That’s understandable, but my professional opinion must be, and will be, based on a detailed review of the evidence. To that end, I will conduct a complete examination and comparison before I reach a final conclusion and give you my opinion. The outcome may or may not meet your expectations or conform to your belief, particularly if you are looking for something particular or specific.
It is critical to understand the duty of an expert is to provide impartial and unbiased information to the trier of fact so that they can determine what the evidence means. I guarantee the quality of my work but that guarantee does not extend to providing any particular outcome or opinion. That is not how it works.
For all these reasons, please do not expect me to provide my opinion without first doing a proper and complete examination.
Now, there are times when a “pre-submission review” of a case submission might be acceptable. Specifically, this might be done to conduct a proper assessment of the material in situations where the matter is complicated, confusing, or it is unclear whether the material you have will be adequate.
As a rule, I provide a work estimate based on a general description of the items and the questions you need answered. Unfortunately, that means there is always some uncertainty in the quote. Hence, from time to time a preview of the material (i.e., pre-submission review) will allow a more precise estimate of the time required or the costs involved so that the estimate is more accurate.
At the same time, please note this is not a “quick look” intended to provide any sort of opinion. No actual examination will happen until my services have been formally retained, and the retainer fee has been received and acknowledged. In other words, any pre-submission is limited to a determination of the type of work to be done, the time required, and a final estimation of costs. A “pre-submission” review is not an examination and will not result in a final, or even preliminary, opinion.
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.
Can you determine personality from handwriting?
The short answer is ‘no’.
It is important to understand that this type of claim, being able to assess personality from a person’s writing, falls completely outside the scope of forensic document examination. In North America, someone who claims to be able to determine personality traits based upon handwriting is generally called a ‘graphologist’, and their field is called ‘graphology’.
The distinction maybe confusing for those who might interpret the word ‘graphologist’ in the broader sense of ‘someone who studies handwriting’; however, that is not how the term is used in the modern forensic science domain. In general, the broader community of Forensic Document Examiners do not consider themselves to be graphologists because they examine handwriting solely to assess questions relating to authorship (as well as performing analyses relating to other aspects of document production). They are trained to do such tasks based upon the study of habitual motor patterns, biomechanics, and neuro-physiology; all aspects of handwriting that have little or nothing to do with the ‘personality traits’ of the writer. At the same time, graphologists do not generally receive any training that would qualify them to do authorship assessments.
Since ‘graphology’ is not my area of expertise I won’t any comment further on the validity of any claims regarding handwriting and personality assessment. Instead, I recommend a couple of independent resources: first, a BC Civil Liberties’ article, The use of graphology as a tool for employee hiring and evaluation and, second, Quackwatch’s How Graphology Fools People article, both of which provide a good analysis. Draw your own conclusions.
So, as I indicated at the start of this answer, this is a clear and definite “no — I cannot determine personality from handwriting”.
“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.
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.
- There are many types of ‘reproduction’ processes that have been used over the years. A qualified examiner should be able to work with all of them.
- In select situations it may be possible to conduct an ‘on-site’ examination in order to work with original materials.
Forensic document examiners have testified as expert witnesses in various courts, and other judicial hearings, for many years. The field was recognized by the courts around the world a very long time ago and, in general, FDE testimony is well-received.
However, as with any type of forensic expertise, the decision to permit an expert to testify in a given court proceeding is made by the judge/adjudicator on a case-by-case basis. The Court must decide whether or not to admit expert evidence based upon a number of factors including the qualifications of the expert, the nature of the evidence, the need to have expert evidence presented and so on. There are various legal standards (jurisdiction-specific) that must be met so that an examiner can be qualified as an expert and permitted to give testimony.
Check with the examiner to ensure they can fulfill those requirements.
No. The examination of signatures and handwriting, to evaluate issues pertaining to authorship, is an important part of the work of a Forensic Document Examiner (FDE), but it is only part of that work. Most examiners can and will also address questions pertaining to how a document was produced, or things that may have happened to a document in the course of its existence.1
The former entail examinations relating to methods of production such as typewriting, computer-generated documents, rubber stamps, inks, pens, paper, photocopies, staplers, faxes, graphic arts, and commercial printing presses. The latter involve examinations relating to alterations, obliterations, erasures, indented impressions, among other things.
Please note that this list is not exhaustive. In general, examinations are done to assess questions pertaining to the authenticity, source, content, or age of a document.
Competency is a huge issue for any forensic service. Ensuring your examiner is actually qualified and competent is not a trivial thing. And, it’s absolutely critical that you do this!
First and foremost, ask questions. Challenge every aspect of that’s person’s credentials: their training, their certification, the equipment they use, the methods they apply to casework, etc.
Their training should conform to the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination (SWGDOC) Standard for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners. That is, the examiner’s training:
- should be “the equivalent of a minimum of 24 months full-time training under the supervision of a principal trainer”. That means at least two years’ worth (i.e., over 4,000 hrs) of face-to-face instruction with direct oversight by the trainer.
- should have been given by a principal trainer who:
- was fully qualified as a forensic document examiner;
- had successfully completed this type of training program (i.e., equivalent of a minimum of 24 months full-time supervised training);
- had been trained in the topics of instruction in the SWGDOC standard (see Section 7); and
- had a minimum of at least five years full-time, post-training experience as a forensic document examiner.
- should be primarily in-person training; not solely or primarily based on distance learning and/or periodic meetings with the principal trainer. Short courses and internet-based training options are acceptable only as supplemental training. Regular, preferably daily, in-person oversight is necessary so that the trainer can fully assess a trainee’s methods and thought processes and ensure the accuracy of their conclusions.
Additionally, the examiner should have an earned baccalaureate degree or equivalent from an accredited college or university.
If your examiner does not recognize and accept the standard for minimum training in forensic document examiners published by SWGDOC, you should be very wary about the nature and quality of their training.
Professional certification is a great credential BUT you must look for someone who has been certified by an independent certifying body that is not affiliated with any specific training entity. I discuss this topic at length in another blog post, however a good resource in this regard is the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) in the USA. The FSAB program “…is intended to establish a mechanism whereby the forensic community can assess, recognize and monitor organizations or professional boards that certify individual forensic scientists or other forensic specialists (conformity assessment bodies, CABs).” In other words, the FSAB accredits the bodies that certify examiners.
To that end, I personally recommend examiners who have been certified by the ABFDE. The ABFDE was the first independent professional certifying body for FDE work having been founded in 1977. It is the only accredited certifying body with Diplomates employed as document examiners in federal, state/provincial, and large municipal crime laboratories in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere. Many of their Diplomates also offer private, independent FDE services. Related blog post: Certification – ABFDE.
The examiner should have a fully-equipped and well-maintained laboratory suited to the services they provide. The basic equipment for a forensic document examination laboratory consists of:
- Stereoscopic binocular microscope
- Specialized lighting for the scope
- Spectral analysis equipment
- Electrostatic detection device
One last note: graphology is a field of study that purports to assess personality from handwriting. Graphology is NOT equivalent to forensic document examination and is not accepted in courts within Canada or the USA. I strongly recommend avoiding any examiner with graphology training and background unless they also have the required FDE training as outlined above. Many ‘purported’ examiners come from this domain and lack appropriate FDE training. Please note that many graphologists downplay their training to minimize challenges relating to this issue.
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:
- simple admission by the author of the document when asked if they produced it;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- 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).
The time required for a case depends on the number of items involved, as well as what needs to be done (ie., the number of requests made and the number of comparisons or examinations to be done). However, assuming the case isn’t too large and the quality of samples is reasonable, turnaround times are usually within 5-10 business days from receipt of evidence to return of evidence with a verbal report of findings. Written report will generally take a few more days. Complex matters, such as medical record reviews or examinations involving multiple potential writers, will require additional time, sometimes considerably more. If your samples have limitations it may be necessary to obtain more or better items in which case the time frame will extend. An estimate for the expected completion date will be provided once a case has been submitted and reviewed.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Evaluative reporting refers to the expression (written or verbal) of an opinion conforming to the logical approach to evidence evaluation.
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
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
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.
NOTE: various terms are used and considered to be synonymous to graphology, including graphometry, graphometrics, graphanalysis, or graphoanalyis.
Hot-tubbing, in this context, is not what the phrase may first bring to mind.
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Where multiple examiners are involved in a case reports will be issued by each person and sometimes those reports will conflict. One way such conflicts can be resolved is commonly called hot-tubbing.
In brief, hot-tubbing is a Court-ordered discussion/debate involving two or more experts, aimed at sorting out critical issues before the forensic evidence is presented to the Court.12 As the Science Manual for Canadian Judges states:
Hot-tubbing originates from Australia, but has since been introduced to countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, England and Canada. In Canada, the Federal Court Rules, SOR/98-106, were amended in 2010 to permit hot-tubbing of experts at pre-trial and at trial (see sections 52.6, 282.1 and 282.2 of the Federal Court Rules below).Science Manual for Canadian Judges, page 160.
- National Judicial Institute. (2013 – updated July 1, 2018). Science Manual for Canadian Judges. URL: https://www.nji-inm.ca/index.cfm/publications/science-manual-for-canadian-judges/?langSwitch=en
- See also Edmond, G., Ferguson, A. P., & Ward, T. (2017). Assessing Concurrent Expert Evidence. Civil Justice Quarterly, 37(3). http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/32674/
The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc. (ABFDE) is a body established in 1977 to do two main things:
- “establish, maintain and enhance standards of qualification for those who practice forensic document examination”
- “certify applicants who comply with ABFDE requirements for this expertise”
The goal of the ABFDE is simple: “to safeguard the public interest by ensuring that anyone who claims to be a specialist in forensic document examination does, in fact, possess the necessary skills and qualifications.”
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.
The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, or FSAB, is a body established in 2000 to help ensure the quality of credentialing bodies (i.e., organizations that professionally certify examiners) with support and funding from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
The program “…is intended to establish a mechanism whereby the forensic community can assess, recognize and monitor organizations or professional boards that certify individual forensic scientists or other forensic specialists (conformity assessment bodies, CABs).” A list of the accredited certifying bodies (CABs) can be found here.
The Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach report, or just the HFHE Report, was produced by the Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination.
I was fortunate to be invited to be a part of this expert working group. The membership spanned various scientific disciplines and included forensic document examiners, lawyers, cognitive scientists (including human factors specialists), among others. A more lengthy discussion of this can be found here.
The EWG “…conducted a scientific assessment of the effects of human factors on forensic handwriting examination” and produced a report that “…provides a comprehensive discussion of human factors as they relate to all aspects of handwriting examination, from documenting discriminating features to reporting results and testifying in court.” Of course, the report also provides extensive recommendations aimed at improving the practice in the future. Specifically, the work was produced “…to encourage and enhance efforts to apply human factors principles to forensic science applications, reduce the risk of error, and improve the practice of forensic handwriting examination.”
It should be noted that the EWG was supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Programs Office.
Formal citation: Taylor, M., Bishop, B., Burkes, T., Caligiuri, M., Found, B., Bird, C., Grose, W., Logan, L., Melson, K., Merlino, M., Miller, L., Mohammed, L., Morris, J., Osborn, J., Osborne, N., Ostrum, R. B., Saunders, C., Shappell, S., Sheets, H., Srihari, S., Stoel, R., Vastrick, T., Waltke, H. and Will, E. (2021), Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach, NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.
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.
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.
An internet search will produce a long list of people and agencies offering FDE services, often at remarkably low cost; much lower than my cost or that of any other reputable and qualified examiner. You should not be surprised by that — after all, there are no controls over who can offer their services to the public as I’ve discussed in another post you can find here.
Cutting corners is rarely a good approach when investing hard-earned money. Forensic document examination is one service where the client definitely should expect to get what they pay for. As the saying goes, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, just wait until you hire an amateur!”
As a parallel, would you trust your case to a sketchy lawyer? Or go with the lowest bid when quality is what matters most? Perhaps so, in which case I can only say please be careful because you may be in for a rude surprise when the time comes to present such evidence in a court setting.
It is critical that you, like the courts, should always vet the credentials and practices of anyone offering this type of service. This is particularly true for anyone offering those services at what appears to be a ‘cut rate’.
A competent professional document examiner will have years of education, training, and experience. They will maintain their skills and currency through ongoing professional development. They will apply appropriate methods and techniques and use only well-maintained equipment. They will document their work and ensure that appropriate quality assurance measures are followed. All these factors come at a cost; the cost of doing business the right way.
To put things bluntly, true forensic expertise does not come cheap. It is definitely not a service where doing things ‘on the cheap’ makes sense.
So, why does my service cost so much? Quite simply, it is because I try to do things the right way and take every precaution to ensure that will be the case. If you opt to go with a cheaper option, I wish you well. However… I will also reiterate the Roman warning:
—Let the buyer beware—
Certification is important primarily because it gives a client some assurance about the abilities and competencies of the examiner. That’s very important when choosing a forensic document examiner.
By ‘client’ I mean both the individual hiring the FDE, usually a lawyer or private citizen, and the Court that will eventually rule on the matter.
Does the lack of certification mean an examiner is not competent? Not necessarily. Certification is voluntary and not all examiners feel it is needed or even important. However, the lack of professional certification means that you, the client, will have to determine whether or not the examiner is competent and qualified using some other means.
This topic discussed at some length in a post you can find here.