A «questioned» document is any signature, handwriting, typewriting, or other mark whose source or authenticity is in dispute or doubtful. Letters, checks, driver licenses, contracts, wills, voter registrations, passports, petitions, threatening letters, suicide notes, and lottery tickets are the most common questioned documents, although marks on doors, walls, windows, or boards would also be included by definition.
QUESTIONED DOCUMENT EXAMINATION frequently is found in cases of forgery, counterfeiting, mail fraud, kidnapping, con games, embezzlement, gambling, organized crime, white collar crime, art crime, theft, robbery, arson, burglary, homicide, serial murder, psychological profiling, and deviant sex crime.
A number of famous cases over the years, some involving wrongful conviction — the Dreyfus affair; Bruno Hauptmann and the Lindbergh Kidnapping; the Hitler Diary profiling controversy; and Clifford Irving’s forgery of Howard Hughes signature and Mormon documents — were showcases for the talents of various experts at QDE. It’s strength, drawn from civil law, is that expert opinion can overturn (alleged) eyewitness opinion.
Historically QDE has been somewhat of an inclusive profession, even to the point where so-called pseudo-experts (in palmistry and fortune-telling) were sometimes welcome, and even today, it suffers from a bit of identity crisis in that at least eight different, or related, areas can be identified:
Questioned Document Examiners — A document examiner analyzes any questioned document and is capable of more than just questions of authorship limited only by their access to laboratory equipment
Historical Dating — These is work involving the verification of age and worth of a document or object, sometimes done by a document examiner, and can get as complicated as Carbon-14 dating
Fraud Investigators — This is work that often overlaps with that of the document examiner and focuses on the money trail and criminal intent
Paper & Ink Specialists — These are public or private experts who date, type, source, and/or catalogue various types of paper, watermarks, ink, printing/copy/fax machines, computer cartridges, etc., using chemical methods
Forgery Specialists — These are public or private experts who analyze altered, obliterated, changed, or doctored documents and photos using infrared lighting, expensive spectrography equipment, or digital enhancement techniques
Handwriting Analysts — These are usually psychology experts who assess personality traits from handwriting samples, also called graphologists or graphoanalysts;
Forensic stylistics refers to the same purpose but by looking at semantics, spelling, word choice, syntax, and phraseology.
Typewriting Analysts — These are experts on the origin, make, and model used in typewritten material
Computer Crime Investigators — This is an emerging group that relates to QDE through some common investigative and testimonial procedures.
It’s probably a futile effort to rigidly demarcate and delimit the various areas of QDE as there will always be overlap, evolution, and, perhaps, controversy.
One of the things important to understand is what the QDE expert is looking for. This deals with the issue of class characteristics versus individual characteristics. In a nutshell, CLASS characteristics, which are commonly found at crime scenes, describe evidence which can only be associated with a group (like those with certain personality traits) and not a single source.
Such evidence can only be used for corroboration or circumstantial purposes, and the evidentiary problem lies in the fact that little or no mathematical models exist to assess probability values with the comparison of class evidence. The expert must say things like «relatively certain» instead of things like «95% of the time» or «an odds-ratio of 300:1».
Individual characteristics describe evidence that is associated with a common source and an extremely high level of probability. It’s not so much that the evidence points directly at anything or anyone; it’s that it draws an inevitable conclusion based on mathematical calculations or probabilities so high as to defy human comprehension while at the same time substantiated by the opinion of a scientific expert.
Among QDE experts, the use is made of many different scientific principles from a variety of disciplines, and one of the first attempts at basic principles appeared in Albert Osborn’s Questioned Documents in 1910, grounded in handwriting comparison as evidence of individual characteristics (paraphrased below):
1. The most identifying characteristics are those which are most divergent from the regular system or national average
2. Repeated characteristics which are inconspicuous should be sought first and given the most weight
3. Regular or national system similarities are not alone sufficient to base judgments.
4. It is the combination of particulars, common and uncommon, that identifies
5. It is impossible to discover how all strange and peculiar characteristics came to be developed
6. People do wholly unaccountable things in their speech, gestures, and writing
7. An individual characteristic may be the survival of an error overlooked by a teacher
8. Many characteristics are outgrowths or copies of an at one time admired design.
The psychological theory of handwriting comparison is developmental. Children learn to write by copying whatever style of writing is fashionable at the time and taught to them by teachers from textbooks. This style is known as the regular or national system, and for most of the twentieth century, it was either the Palmer system or the Zaner-Blosser system for cursive.
Today, there are many systems, or no system. As the child grows, the act of writing becomes a subconscious effort and begins to pick up habitual shapes and patterns that distinguish it from all others. This is most evident with capital letters and numerals. Handwriting has individual characteristics due to it being largely unconscious behavior. The unconscious handwriting of two different individuals is never identical.
Mechanical and physical factors, as well as the mental ones, make it highly unlikely that the exact same handwriting occurs in two different people. It’s therefore important that samples, exemplars, or specimens (all synonymous terms for documents of known origin) be obtained under conditions as similar as possible to the conditions present at the time the disputed, doubtful, or original (all synonymous terms for questioned documents) was created.
Legally, the conditions in place that produced the specimen serve to authenticate it as a standard. Authentication, or positively establishing the origin of known documents, is required for any piece of documentary evidence. This can be accomplished by the testimony of witnesses who saw the original writing produced, by the testimony of persons familiar with the writing, or (in some states) by a post litem motam courtroom demonstration where the writer gives a sample which is checked within an hour to a day or more by a QDE expert.
Technically, even the police could extract authenticated samples since neither Fourth nor Fifth Amendment rights apply to handwriting samples. In addition, some samples are self-authenticating — as in any writing on legal forms, business correspondence, responses to communication from others, and some «ancient» documents (over 30 years old). Irregularities in the authentication (or discovery) process of a handwriting case are NOT grounds for reversible error.
The accused may get a new trial, but they are not exculpated or found innocent by most courtroom errors. Refusal by the accused to give a handwriting sample is presumptive evidence of guilt. There’s no right to remain silent when it comes to handwriting.
There’s some precedent in art therapy and projective psychological testing for graphology. Many convictions of child sex offenders have occurred because of what the child victim portrayed in a drawing, and with psychological testing, there’s the famous «Draw a Pig» assignment, which apparently contains everything you need to make a subjective personality assessment from: where placed on paper; the size of the pig; the pressure applied; the direction the pig is facing; attention to details; line quality; angular or curved strokes; and emphasis on head of pig.