Forensic Handwriting Examination - Selecting Your Expert
Forensic handwriting examiners or questioned document examiners are typically sought by investigators or private citizens when a question arises regarding the authenticity of a particular writing. They can also be sought out by attorneys preparing cases for settlement or trials. How should you address the level of competence of a forensic handwriting examiner before asking for their assistance? Once a request is made for an examiner to begin analysis, it is too late to rethink the submission.
By Larry F. Stewart, MSFS, CFC, Chief Forensic Scientist for Stewart Forensic Consultants, LLC.
In the Jon Benet Ramsey murder investigation, one mistake the authorities made was in the area of handwriting analysis. They decided to send the kidnap ransom letter to numerous document examiners for handwriting conclusions. This, in effect, removed their possibility of getting any useable courtroom conclusion. Handwriting analysis is not an exact science. It is widely thought to be a combination of art and science and as such, two different examiners, may both be accurate, but may indeed have slightly varying results or intensities of conclusions. In the Ramsey case, the handwriting opinions went the full spectrum of conclusions, making it essentially useless in the investigation. A better approach would have been for the investigators to have properly researched the level of professionalism of the possible examiners allowing them to then make an informed decision as to who to send the evidence to.
There is no state or federal licensing bureau for forensic handwriting or document examiners. Unfortunately, anyone can advertise and claim to be a competent one. If you simply look at the internet or the yellow pages, you will see numerous (hundreds on the internet) of advertisements from individuals claiming to be able to examine documents for authenticity, alteration, age and in some cases even more. Graphology or graphoanalysis has become a bad word in the world of forensic handwriting or document examiners. Historically, graphologists were people who through a person’s handwriting, assess their personality, age, sex and propensity toward crime. The true professionals in the field know this to be not scientifically proven as accurate.
So how do you determine competence?
First, let’s consider the job itself. There are both physical and mental aspects of forensic handwriting examination.
A person who desires to enter a career of forensic handwriting or document examination must possess certain traits and innate abilities. First, and very important, is the physical aspect of excellent eyesight and form perception. It is needed in order to see the fine details that are otherwise inconspicuous. The trainee must also typically pass a form blindness test in order to ensure that they do not suffer from the condition of being unable to tell apart two similarly-appearing, yet different, items.
The single, most important mental factor in determining competency as a document examiner lies in their training.
Currently, most large laboratories require a minimum of a Bachelor of Science degree for new applicants. This degree indicates a minimum scientific background with which to approach the forensic work in an objective fashion. It also provides the necessary biological, physical, and chemical knowledge needed for the work.
Additional areas of developed knowledge for the aspiring document examiner are in the areas of paper, ink, handwriting and printing processes. Knowledge of current technologies, their use and limitations in the field is critical.
Self-education is the way in which the pioneers of the field began, as there was no other method of instruction. Unfortunately, there is a very real danger that the student will follow a stray path, losing their direction with no one to steer him or her back on course. That is why this method is generally frowned upon these days in favor of an apprenticeship.
Most resources indicate, at a minimum, completion of a full-time, two year apprenticeship program under a fully competent examiner is mandatory. It is difficult to accomplish, because what working examiner has the time or resources to spend 2 years full-time with a trainee? Many of the larger programs at state and federal agencies have a training program wherein they work with trainees to get them qualified. This becomes the primary pool of qualified examiners.
There are no formal schools or peer-accepted academic sources that offer degrees in forensic document examination. It is too difficult to include the necessary level of practical experience in a normal academic program. Even still, there are some academic programs that have offered coursework related to forensic document examination. They include: Oklahoma State University Graduate Program in Forensic Science (Stillwater, Oklahoma), L'Université de Lausanne Institut de Police Scientifique (Lausanne, Switzerland), George Washington University (Washington, DC), University of Central Florida (Orlando, Florida) and Antioch University (Yellow Springs, Ohio). More recently, options for continuing education are being developed in an on-line format, e.g. with the American College of Forensic Examiners International.
Many of the well respected agencies that employ forensic document examiners believe that the two years experience during the apprenticeship only brings the typical examiner up to a minimal level of competency. It is widely understood that it can take years more to develop a real knowledge of document examination techniques and limits of conclusions and that good training should include the study of all aspects of questioned documents with expertise gained only with the examination of thousands of documents from a variety of cases.
This said, it can take a career to become well qualified in the difficult field of questioned document examination. Why? It is because of the combination of art and science that make up a good forensic handwriting or document examiner.
There have been some attempts at “certification” of an examiner’s competency. The problem with the certifications are that they are very specific and in many cases don’t truly encompass the breadth of the examinations conducted by an examiner. This can yield a false sense of competency in the eyes of the requestor. In addition some areas of document analysis are so specialized that there are only a handful of experts in the world, so certification becomes problematic for the certifying bodies. Who heads up the certification and decides the competency levels necessary if there are only a few people doing it in the world?
The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) is an example of a recognized national certifying body of forensic document examiners. The ABFDE was organized in 1977 and, at present, certifies around 120 active Diplomates, mainly within the United States. Among the minimum qualifications that must be met for ABFDE certification are:
- possession of a baccalaureate degree;
- completion of a two-year, full-time training program at a recognized document laboratory;
- the full-time practice of forensic document examination; and
- pass a comprehensive written and/or oral examination.
In addition to the ABFDE, there are sources for certification by law enforcement agencies as well as other organizations. There are well qualified and competent document examiners who do not possess ABFDE certification. Some are opposed to the views of the organization and some are outside of the scope of the knowledge of the certifying body and don’t feel the board has the capacity to certify them.
The record of expert testimony of a potential examiner will let you know if the document examiner has ever been accepted as an expert witness before the courts. Qualified forensic document examiners frequently testify as experts in both criminal and civil trials in federal, state and local courts as well as in administrative hearings. Although all examiners have a first time for testifying, you may not want it to be in your case, especially if it is a high profile or publicized case involving a good probability of intense cross examination.
Examiners should show a history of continuing education, professional memberships and participation in the field. While membership in organizations relating to the forensic analysis of questioned documents and presenting research papers does not necessarily ensure proficiency, they certainly attest to a professional commitment and imply competence.
National organizations include the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, the American College of Forensic Examiners International and the International Association for Identification. Local associations include many regional associations of forensic scientists. These organizations all have strict membership, ethics and participation requirements.
Do Your Homework!
Establishing credentials before selecting your expert may mean the difference between catching or losing the criminal during the investigation or winning or losing the case in Court. It may also save a client large sums of money in unnecessary litigation fees and adverse judgments.
Larry F Stewart has an AA, a BS in Forensic Science, and a MS of Forensic Sciences degree. Over 30 year career, he has worked on many notable cases to include; Unabomber, John Wilkes Booth diary, accused war criminals, e.g. John Demjanjuk, a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible, reinvestigation of the MLK/JFK/CIA conspiracy theory, Quedlinburg Treasure, 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin, Jon Benet Ramsey murder, 9/11 terrorist attacks, Martha Stewart, DC Sniper and 2010 Brazilian presidential election scandal. Testified as an expert in state, federal, military and foreign courts of law. Testified at The Hague and before the U.S. Congress. In his position as Lab Director and Chief Forensic Scientist for the US Secret Service, he managed up to 120 scientists, technicians, and support staff. In 2005, Mr. Stewart began the independent forensic laboratory, consulting and investigative firm known as Stewart Forensic Consultants, LLC and its subsidiary, Global Investigative & Intelligence Services.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.