Forensic Document Examiners
U.S. Supreme Court ruling sides with Forensic Document Examiners as Experts.

(March 23, 1999: Gumbo Tire Co. V. Carmichael) The U.S. Supreme Court by an 8-1 ruling told federal trial judges to screen out dubious testimony by self-proclaimed experts when opinions are not based in science. The ruling extends to all manners of individuals such as engineers, psychologists, accountants or handwriting analysts. Before they are permitted to testify to juries, stated examiners must show that their opinions are based on "scientific principles," and not just a hunch based on self-described practical experience.

The high court has shown a skepticism toward hired self-proclaimed experts. Six years ago, the Supreme Court said that lower courts should act as "gatekeepers" and to carefully examine testimony by these applicants. Judges should look beyond advertised qualifications and examiner the basis of their conclusions on facts.

 

What does this mean to the collector?

Simple, if a dealer-authenticated autograph is disputed and taken to court it will not hold up unless the dealer used scientific forensic techniques. Without credentials and facts the dealer will not be allowed to testify because they are not considered experts by the court. You, the collector, will be left hanging. The federal courts will rely on established Court Qualified & Board Certified Forensic Document Examiners as their experts.

 

What are Forensic Document Examiners?

Forensic document examiners, also often referred to as questioned document examiners, are forensic scientists who are responsible for using a number of scientific processes and methods for examining documents-whether written, typed, or printed-related to a crime scene investigation.

Forensic document examiners should not be confused with graphologists, who are handwriting analysis practitioners that claim to be able to discern personality characteristics based on handwriting features. Graphology is largely viewed as a pseudoscience in the eyes of the scientific community.

Forensic document examiners, on the other hand, are skilled forensic scientists with a demonstrated expertise in applied questioned document examination. They are handwriting experts, as well as experts in other areas of document examination, including machine printing processes: and obliterated, indented and erased entries.

The most common type of question document examination involves identifying the authorship of a written letter. It is also common for forensic document examiners to determine if an item originated from the same source as a known item, determine when a document was produced, and decipher information on a document that has been erased, hidden and obscured.

Forensic document examiner may perform the following: 

  1. Examine documents for signs that they have been forged or altered

  2. Compare signatures and handwriting through handwriting analysis to determine the authorship of documents.

  3. Examine typed documents and link them to specific machines or computers.

  4. Decipher the contents of documents that have been partially destroyed or altered

  5. Compare fractured or cut-edge comparisons on a variety of surfaces, including paper and tape.

  6. Examine incidents of indented writing

  7. Perform alternate light source examinations to determine ink discrimination, alterations and /or enhancements.

Forensic document examiners commonly work in local, state or federal crime labs. A number of these professionals work through private investigative companies, although this type of work is generally geared toward civil cases. Forensic document examiners are also often called to testify as experts in criminal cases.

In addition to many state, county and municipal crime labs that specialize in forensic document analysis, several federal agencies operate questioned documents units. These federal QD units, as they are called, provide support to state and local law enforcement, as well as training on specialized technical topics concerning questioned document examination.

Among the federal agencies with QD units are the: 

  1. U.S. Secret Service

  2. Federal Bureau of Investigation

  3. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  4. US Army Crime Lab

  5. Internal Revenue Service

  6. US Postal Inspection Service

  7. Bureau of alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

Handwriting Examination

The identification of handwriting is a scientific process that includes the analysis of various aspects of natural writing, including the writer’s slant, size relationships between letters, angles, connecting and ending strokes of letters, speed and flow of the writing, and formation of letters. Initially when children learn to write, they are taught a set copybook pattern, the precise shapes of letters and relationships between letters. These traits are referred to as a class characteristic, those features in handwriting that all individuals who learned that particular copybook style utilize. Over time, as writing becomes more of a natural process, and the writer no longer thinks about it, but does it automatically, he or she inserts individualized traits in the writing, much as on asserts his or her own personality. These traits are referred to as individual characteristics.

An examination of handwriting includes the analysis of an individual's class and individual characteristics. As a person writes over time, this combination of traits repeats itself, so one sample of an individual’s writing can be compared to another. Consistent similarities can lead to an identification of common authorship, just as unexplainable differences can lead to exclusion.

Upon receipt of a questioned signature or writing, the forensic scientist conducts various scientific tests, including examining the writing under magnification, to determine the individual and class characteristics of the writing. The same method is also used to study the known exemplars of the individual, to determine what the characteristics are, as well as the individual variation that all writers have. People do not always write exactly the same, but they do have consistent patterns that make it possible to determine the range of their variations in handwriting.

Questioned writings are then compared to the known standards, to determine if they have the same patterns of individual and class characteristics, without unexplainable differences. If the same patterns exist in both the questioned and known exemplars, without significant differences, common authorship can be determined.

Forensic handwriting examiners maintain reference libraries of known handwriting samples of both historical and contemporary famous people. Forensic  document examiners photograph all questioned material, and if it identified, is added to the reference library.

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