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.

Are there any good textbooks about Forensic Document Examination?

There are a lot of textbooks about Forensic Document Examination. Most laboratories and private examiners have extensive collections and libraries.

Here are a few that I prefer, in no particular order:

 Huber and Headrick Handwriting Identification Roy A. Huber and A.M. Headrick. Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals. (CRC Press, 1999) ISBN: 9780849312854
 Caliguiri and Mohammed text Neuroscience of Handwriting Michael P. Caligiuri and Linton A. Mohammed. The Neuroscience of Handwriting: Applications for Forensic Document Examination. (CRC Press, 2012) ISBN: 9781439871409
 Wilson Harrison text Suspect Documents Wilson R. Harrison. Suspect Documents: Their Scientific Examination (New York: Frederick A Praeger, 1958) ISBN:9780882297590
 Kelly and Lindblom text Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents Jan Seaman Kelly, Brian S. Lindblom, eds. Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, Second Edition. (CRC Press, 2006) ISBN: 9780849320446
 David Ellen text Scientific Examination of Documents David Ellen. Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, 3rd Edition. (CRC Press, 1997) ISBN: 9780849339257
Are there any licensing requirements for a Forensic Document Examiner?

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 their 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.

Can you decipher obliterated writings?

In general, yes, it is possible to decipher obliterated writings.

An “obliterated writing” involves entries which have been covered by some material — ink from the same or a different pen/marker, white-out material, paint, etc.   The obliteration is done in some attempt to hide or mask the original information.

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

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. There are times when it is impossible to decipher all of the original entry.

Can you determine personality from handwriting?

First of all, it is important to understand that this type of claim falls completely outside of the scope of forensic document examination.  In North America, someone who claims to be able to determine personality traits from handwriting would generally be called a ‘graphologist’.

This distinction can be confusing for those people who interpret the word in the broader sense of ‘someone who studies handwriting’, but that is not how the term is used in the forensic science domain. The broader community of Forensic Document Examiners do not generally consider themselves to be graphologists.  

This is because FDEs examine handwriting to assess questions about authorship (along with questions about other aspects of document production) and are trained to do that task based upon the study of habitual motor patterns, biomechanics, and neuro-physiology.  Graphologists do not, in general, receive 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 review of information provided by the BC Civil Liberties group which did a good analysis of the matter.  Draw your own conclusion.

As for me the answer is a clear and definite “no — I cannot determine personality from handwriting”.

Can you recover erased writings?

“Erased writings” are written entries which have been removed in an attempt to get rid of the original information, either to simply delete it or replace it with something else.

Erasures 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.

Very often the idea behind an ‘erasure’ is to remove the information while leaving no significant indication it was ever present, or that an erasure had 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 work with photocopied or faxed documents?

Yes, a forensic document examiner can work with photocopies or other types of reproduction such as photographs. 

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 is likely to 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).

However, if the issue relates to authorship of handwriting then it is always best to have the original document, rather than any reproduction.1

Another factor to consider is the possibility that the writing (i.e., signature) may have been ‘inserted’ into a document via a “cut-and-paste” process, either through electronic/digital or manual means.  This type of activity can be extremely difficult to detect or assess when working with a copy.

At the same time, the issue will sometimes relate to some aspect of the reproduction process itself. For example, the issue at hand may pertain to the 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?

In those situations the copy process should not limit the comparison, per se.

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.

  1. In select situations it may be possible to conduct an ‘on-site’ examination in order to work with original materials. Details of this option are discussed in another FAQ.
Do Forensic Document Examiners testify in court?

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.

Do you only examine signatures and handwriting?

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.

FDEs also address questions pertaining to how a document was produced, or things that have happened to document in the course of their existence. The former might entail examinations relating to typewriting, computer-generated documents, rubber stamps, inks, pens, paper, photocopies, staplers or faxes. The latter might entail examinations of alterations, obliterations, erasures, or indented impressions.

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.

Do you only identify a writer?

The short answer to this is ‘no’. As the saying goes there are two sides to every story, and sometimes there are more than two.

Any evaluation of writing to assess potential authorship may result in an opinion (probabilistic in nature) that points towards “association”, or towards “non-association”, for a suspect writer. Beyond this, some materials are inadequate for a meaningful assessment and that results in an “inconclusive” opinion regarding potential authorship.

A more complete answer is that the evaluation of writing (or any forensic material for that matter) requires that the evidence be assessed under at least two competing propositions. When it comes to issues of authorship, a commonly-used set of propositions would be:

H1: the writer of the specimen material wrote the questioned material, versus
H2: someone other than the writer of the specimen material wrote the questioned material.

In this approach the evaluation process is aimed at determining which of these two propositions is better supported by the evidence, and to what degree. Thus, any given examination may result in a variety of outcomes depending upon the specific question(s) being asked, the propositions used and the evidence under consideration (i.e., the actual material examined). And, of course, the result of the examination is never a foregone conclusion.

How long does an examination take?

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.

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 are common methods of ‘forgery’?

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

It is commonly held that 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 but the word also has a legal connotation that extends further.

In most legal contexts, a ‘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 FDEs.  This relates, in part, to the approach taken by FDEs where conclusions address the propositions directly (i.e., the document is or is not a forgery), rather than speaking to the evidence given the propositions.  For more on that topic, see this post.

In many instances examiners can assess a document to determine if it has been altered or produced in some way that is inconsistent with legitimate production.  However, it is impossible to speak directly to the issue of the ‘intent to defraud’. That facet of the matter must be addressed through other means, aside from the FDE evidence.  As a result, rather than use 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.

Having said all of above, the most common methods encountered in handwriting cases where ‘forgery’ is a concern would be a tracing or free-hand simulation of writing on a document, either extended writing or an isolated 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 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 on its own but questions relating to any source attribution require samples of a ‘proven’ nature, (i.e., known, specimen, or exemplar material).

Specimen samples must be obtained by the client in most situations.  Along with the questioned sample they are 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.

Related questions:

  • What purpose do specimen samples serve?
  • What type of specimen samples do you need?
  • How much specimen material do you need?
  • How is proof of specimen material achieved?
What is Handwriting Identification?

Historically speaking, the term ‘handwriting identification’ has been used to refer to the study and examination of handwritten material to assess the potential authorship of a written sample.

As Huber and Headrick explained (Handwriting Identification, p. 33):

Handwriting identification is a discriminatory process that derives from the comparison of writing habits, and an evaluation of the significance of their similarities or differences.

and  (Handwriting Identification, p. 34)

… handwriting identification is a comparison of habits in writing behaviour and performance.

The overall process is undertaken to assess whether or not a given person (or suspect) produced a writing sample that is in question.  In other words, the examiner attempts to ‘identify’ or ‘eliminate’ the suspect writer as being the source of a sample of handwriting of unknown genesis.


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).   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’?


What is ‘indented’ writing?

As the term suggests, “indented” writing (or simply indentations) is a type of indentation, or physical distortion, in a piece of paper, at least when the effect is strong. This occurs when writing is produced on one piece of paper while that paper is resting on another piece (or a pile) of paper. Such indentations or impressions are latent, meaning un-inked and often invisible, and are produced in those pieces of paper lying beneath the top-most sheet (i.e., the one where the visible writing is being done).

Latent indentations often provide useful information because the writer is generally unaware of their existence.

Tests have shown that latent indentations may transfer through multiple sheets of paper. In addition, such indentations can be very stable over time lasting weeks, months, or years.

Some indentations occur for reasons other than writing, per se. In fact, whenever pressure is applied to the surface of paper it can produce an indentation (inked or not). For example, paper passing through a printing device often shows latent indentations relating to the transport and paper-handling mechanisms.

There are other potential causes of markings that 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.

Why does your service cost so much?

An internet search will provide a list of many people or agencies offering FDE services at remarkably low cost.  Much lower than my costs or the cost of any reputable and qualified examiner.

This isn’t surprising.  But, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur!”

This is a service where you should expect to get what you pay for.  Cutting corners is rarely a good investment for your hard-earned money.

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 there may be a rude surprise when the time comes to present such evidence in a court setting.

You, like the courts, should always vet the credentials and practises of anyone offering this type of service. And particularly so for those offering those services at 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 use appropriate methods, techniques and equipment. They will document their work and use all appropriate quality assurance measures. All of these things come with a cost; the cost of doing business the right way.

The bottom line is that true forensic expertise does not come cheap. It is not a service where people should try to do things ‘on the cheap’.

So… as the Romans would say “Caveat Emptor”

—Let the buyer beware—