Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. Can photocopies of documents be used for a forensic handwriting examination or are originals necessary?
A. Forensic science is the application of science to the law.
A. A Forensic Document Examiner (FDE) is a highly trained individual who applies allied sciences and analytical techniques to questions concerning the authenticity of a document. Specialized training and experience enables the FDE to perform a litany of examinations on documents that are in dispute. The examination of documents consists of analyzing and comparing any component of the document in order to establish the document’s authenticity.
A. Forensic Document Examiners receive specialized training in the examination of handwriting for the purpose of identifying or eliminating whether a particular writing was written by a known writer whose handwriting has been collected for comparison with the questioned writing.
Not all handwriting cases lend themselves to a definitive determination of identification or elimination. Limiting factors such as the poor condition or resolution of the questioned document, an insufficient amount of collected known writing, or the simplicity of the questioned writing may preclude a definitive finding.
A. In general, handwriting examinations consist of examining and comparing questioned writing with the known writing of the individual suspected of writing the questioned material. The questioned and known documents are placed side-by-side and every letter, word and phrase is given thorough attention to analyze the writing style, handwriting characteristics and personal writing habits. The Forensic Document Examiner will conduct a thorough analysis of the handwriting to assess many elements such as:
- Is the writing naturally and freely executed?
- Is there evidence of disguise and/or intentional distortion?
- Is the quality and quantity of writing in the questioned and known documents sufficient to conduct an effective examination?
- Are the questioned and known documents originals or photocopies?
- What is the range of variation within the writing?
- How much weight can be put on the similarities or differences found among the questioned and known writings?
A. A routine handwriting examination requires like items to be compared. That is, the same letters and letter combinations must be compared to each other; handwriting must be compared to handwriting; upper case letters must be compared to upper case letters; and so forth. Depending upon the circumstances of the case, it will be necessary to obtain both collected and requested known writing for comparison to the questioned material. Collected writing is known writing prepared by the suspect writer that was written in situations unrelated to the case at hand and preferably contemporaneously with the questioned writing. Requested writing is known writing prepared by the suspect writer that is witnessed and repeats the questioned material.
A. There is a marked difference between a Forensic Document Examiner (FDE) and a graphologist. Graphologists attempt to predict personality and character traits of an individual through their handwriting. A FDE evaluates a questioned document and performs numerous examinations in order to resolve issues related to handwriting, ink, paper, alterations, additions, missing pages and, in general, the authentication of all aspects of the document in question.
Some graphologists claim to be experts in handwriting analysis and profess to be the equivalent of a FDE but they do not possess the qualifications, training and certifications mandated by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), the organization that recognizes qualified FDE’s. In their attempt to confuse and appear equivalent to FDE’s, graphologists have created organizations with names and acronyms similar to legitimate, professional FDE organizations. To be a certified FDE, a person is required to have the proper educational background, formal training and full-time apprenticeship credentials as prescribed by the ABFDE, the certifying body established in 1977 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to recognize qualified FDE’s in government laboratories and private practice. Certification is earned and maintained through the meticulous evaluation of the applicant’s credentials (education, training and professional references), a rigorous testing program, and the requirement to remain current in the questioned document field (e.g., attendance at professional conferences).
In U.S. v Bourgeois (950 F 2d 980 (5th Cir. 1992)), the court rejected the testimony of a proffered ‘handwriting examiner’ in part because his training was completed through a correspondence school with a strong emphasis in graphoanalysis. In American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. v Preston Ward, Derick Ward, and Ann Vines (509 F. Supp 2d 1324 (2007)), the court rejected a proffered ‘handwriting examiner’ because he was not accredited by the ABFDE.
A. With extensive training, a Forensic Document Examiner (FDE) can assist lawyers and law enforcement when there are questions with respect to the authorship of a signature and/or authenticity of a document. Types of examinations may include:
- Authorship identification or elimination of handwriting, hand-printing and signatures
- Detection of forged documents
- Analysis of machine-printed text from printers, copiers and typewriters
- Printing process identification
- Detection and decipherment of alterations, additions, deletions, and indented impressions
- Non-destructive ink comparisons
- Detection of page substitution
- Determination of contemporaneous preparation of multiple documents
A. There is no state or federal licensing agency for the field of forensic document examination, and no college degree or major in forensic document examination. Because of this void and the fact that unqualified individuals may present themselves to be handwriting experts, the U.S. Department of Justice provided a grant for the establishment of a certifying body to recognize qualified Forensic Document Examiners in government laboratories and private practice. This allowed for the creation of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) which was established in 1977. Certification by the ABFDE is earned through the meticulous evaluation of an applicant’s credentials (education, training and professional references) and successful completion of a rigorous testing program. Certification is maintained through mandatory continuing education requirements in the field of questioned documents.
Minimum qualifications for ABFDE certification include:
- Baccalaureate degree
- Full-time training program in a recognized document laboratory
- A minimum of two years of additional independent document work
- Full-time practice of forensic document examination
Additionally, in American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. v Preston Ward, Derick Ward, and Ann Vines (509 F. Supp 2d 1324 (2007)), the court rejected a proffered handwriting examiner because he was not accredited by the ABFDE.
A. The best way to know that you are hiring an American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) certified FDE is to access the ABFDE web site (www.abfde.org) since each ABFDE-certified professional is listed on the site. Also, look through the listed qualifications and credentials to understand his/her education, experience, training, professional memberships and apprenticeships.
Be aware that unqualified ‘handwriting experts’ often claim to be ‘court qualified’ because a judge allowed him/her to testify. This is not an endorsement of qualifications as demonstrated in U.S. v Bourgeois (950 F 2d 980 (5th Cir. 1992)), where the court rejected the testimony of a proffered handwriting examiner in part because his training was completed through a correspondence school with a strong emphasis in graphoanalysis. In American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. v Preston Ward, Derick Ward, and Ann Vines (509 F. Supp 2d 1324 (2007)), the court rejected a proffered handwriting examiner because he was not accredited by the ABFDE.
A. Original documents are always the best evidence and more thorough and effective examinations can be conducted using original documents. However, in this day and age, photocopies are often the best evidence available. There are limitations to examinations involving photocopies and the quality of the copy is a significant factor but forensic handwriting examinations can often be performed using photocopies.
A. Donna will always provide her clients with the “right” answer relative to the evidence submitted in each case; however, some cases do not lend themselves to an answer that is favorable for the client. There are also cases where no definitive answer can be reached. Donna is among the best at what she does, and you cannot receive a more qualified or accurate opinion elsewhere.
A. Donna is currently a part time employee in the Forensic Laboratory at the Department of Homeland Security and is therefore barred from working any case that involves immigration issues and cases that have a federal law enforcement agency (e.g., FBI, Secret Service) Forensic Document Examiner testifying for the prosecution. This restriction will not be applicable after she retires from government service.
A. Please email Donna at firstname.lastname@example.org and brief her on the forensic document examination services you require. She will review your request and get back to you within 2 business days.