Handwriting, Typewriting, Shoeprints, and Tire Treads, by Held (Forensic Science Communications, April 2001)
April 2001 - Volume 3 - Number 2
Research and Technology
Handwriting, Typewriting, Shoeprints, and Tire Treads:
FBI Laboratory’s Questioned Documents Unit
Dorothy-Anne E. Held
Questioned Documents Examiner
Questioned Documents Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Questioned Documents Unit (QDU) personnel at the FBI Laboratory support federal, state, local, and international law enforcement agencies by providing advanced technical and forensic support with the following:
- Examinations, reports, and testimony;
- Technical support of field investigations;
- Training provided to FBI and other federal and state examiners; and
- Research and evaluation of newly developed technology.
Physical examinations in the QDU involve close and careful scrutiny of surfaces and other items. Paper is the most typical surface examined. Examiners may focus on one or more of the following:
To determine whether watermarks or other internal features are present in paper, evidence is placed over a source of transmitted light. The presence of a watermark is important, because it can sometimes be used to establish a date that the document cannot precede. For example, if a document is dated 1959, but the watermark was not produced until 1965, the date written on the document is incorrect.
Two methods for determining the presence of indented writing are used. They are side lighting, in which a light source is passed over the sheet of paper at an oblique angle, and the electrostatic detection apparatus (ESDA), an instrument that renders indented writing visible and provides a record of the writing. See Figure 1.
The Video Spectral Comparator 2000 (VSC2000; Foster+Freeman, Worcestershire, United Kingdom) is used for a variety of physical examinations including determining the presence of indented writing, deciphering writing, rendering obscured writing visible, and differentiating between inks and papers by their optical properties. For more information about the VSC2000, see “Advances in Document Examination: The Video Spectral Comparator 2000,” by Mokrzycki in the October 1999 issue of this journal. See Figure 2.
Other physical examinations of the QDU include determining the contents of used carbon paper and typewriter ribbons, stabilizing and examining burned or moisture-damaged paper, and reconstructing torn or shredded paper.
Heather’s body was later discovered in a plastic bag in a trash can. Investigations revealed that this was the second infant the Sims’ family had lost under similar circumstances. Three years earlier, 13-day-old Loralie was found dead in a wooded area behind the Sims’ home after a reported kidnapping. Although her parents were suspected of foul play, there was insufficient evidence to charge them at that time.
The questioned documents examination centered on the plastic bag. An FBI questioned documents examiner visited the plastic bag manufacturing plant and consulted with the personnel concerning what might constitute defining characteristics for a suspect bag. The cut edges were not suitable for this purpose. However, it was determined that the heat-seal process used during manufacturing imparted individual characteristics to the bags. These factors provided a framework by which individual bags could be definitively linked and placed within a specific period of time. It was, therefore determined that the plastic bag that contained Heather’s body and the bags found in the Sims’ home were manufactured by the same machine within seconds of each other.
Paula Sims was charged with killing Heather by suffocation. She was convicted of murder on February 2, 1990, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. See Figure 3.
Evaluations and comparisons of questioned (unknown origin) and known materials comprise the second type of examination conducted by FBI questioned document examiners. Comparisons are conducted on handwriting, hand printing, typewriting, and typewriter components including typewriter ribbons and elements. Less frequently, comparisons of photocopies, facsimiles, printers and printing processes, checkwriters, dry seals or stamps (rubber or similar types), and other items of evidence are requested.
The majority of the cases handled by the QDU involve handwriting. Although not all handwriting is identifiable to a specific writer or writers, the examination of handwriting characteristics can sometimes result in determining the origin or authenticity of said questioned writing. Traits such as age, sex, personality, or intent cannot be determined from handwriting examinations.
Handwriting comparisons are based on the principles that no two people write exactly alike and that characteristics reoccur throughout every person’s writing, although no one writes exactly the same way twice. This combination of characteristics is unique to every individual and is used by document examiners for comparison.
Evidence bearing writing may be received in two forms. If the evidence submitted includes only writing of unknown origin, the examination will probably include only file searches, the preservation of a visual record, and an evaluation of the potential for future comparisons of the writing. When both questioned and known (the product of a specific, identified individual) writings are submitted, the same file searches and preservation are completed. In addition, a side-by-side comparison of the writings will occur. At the conclusion of any QDU examination, a report is issued explaining the examinations conducted and stating any definitive determinations made as a result of the comparisons.
A definite opinion is not always possible when conducting a handwriting comparison. Reasons for an inconclusive result include the following.
- The questioned writing is limited.
- The known writing is limited in amount, comparability, or both.
- The writing is not naturally prepared.
Common types of writing unlikely to yield definite opinions include photocopies (often mistaken for original writing) and deliberately distorted writing, including tracings and simulations. Figures 4 and 5 include some questioned signatures that contain characteristics indicative of distorted writing. Because distorted writing does not usually reflect the normal habits of the person who prepared it, handwriting comparisons are unlikely to result in the association of a questioned signature with the person who wrote it.
Peter Weinberger Kidnapping
Handwriting experts from the FBI Laboratory went to New York to participate in the investigation. The examiners found the ransom note contained distinguishing characteristics in 16 letters of the alphabet. Most unusual was the kidnaper’s lower-case script “m,” which resembled a sideways “z.” Investigators searched through nearly two million handwriting specimens from public records trying to find similar writing.
On July 10, the Weinbergers were instructed by telephone to put the ransom money in a blue bag. The bag would be left by a parkway exit sign. A second note was in the bag, repeating the $2,000 demand. The handwriting seemed to match the first note.
Meanwhile, a federal probation office in Brooklyn discovered in his files a document written by a criminal defendant who formed the letter “m” in the same way as the author of the ransom notes. The writer was Angelo LaMarca, a 31-year-old auto mechanic. Questioned document examiners compared the document and the notes. LaMarca was identified as the author of the ransom notes.
LaMarca admitted kidnapping and abandoning the Weinberger child and took investigators to the place where he had left the child. Little Peter Weinberger had died of exposure.
|Shoeprint and Tire Tread Examinations
Shoeprint and tire tread impression evidence is examined to determine the brand name and manufacturer of the shoe or tire that made an impression. The design of the shoe’s outsole may be searched through the Shoeprint File. The portions of an impression that may be analyzed include designs, borders, and general shapes (e.g., pointed or rounded toes). If the impression is complete, a general estimation of size sometimes can be made. A more precise size determination is possible if the manufacturer is known. See Figures 10 and 11. Similarly, tire tread impression evidence is searched through the Tire Tread File or through the annual reference book, Tread Design Guide (Tire Guides, Incorporated, 2000).
Comparisons of shoeprint and tire tread impression evidence with submitted shoes or tires are also conducted. Impression evidence can be in the form of photographs, lifts, casts, or an original item bearing an impression. A shoe can be definitively identified with an impression if there is sufficient detail in the impression and sufficient identifying characteristics are on the shoe. A tire can be positively identified with an impression if the same criteria are met. See Figure 12.
Bodziak (2000) offers the following comment on this form of evidence:
Items of footwear and their impressions that remain at the crime scene offer sound, reliable, and demonstrative evidence of a person’s presence. (p. vii; quoted with permission of author)
Shoeprint Investigation of the Simpson–Goldman Murders
Following the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, photographs depicting shoeprint impressions in blood from the Brentwood, California, crime scene were delivered to the FBI Laboratory. The Los Angeles Police Department requested the determination of the brand and size of footwear that made the impressions. The impressions submitted were mainly from a path adjacent to the home of one of the victims, Nicole Brown Simpson. However, other partial impressions were on the victims’ clothing.
By examining these impressions and researching the FBI reference and standards files, an FBI examiner was able to positively link some of the crime scene impressions to size 12 Bruno Magli™ Lorenzo shoes. The examiner issued a report directly to the judge in the case and was subsequently called to testify. Although the shoeprints from the crime scene could be positively linked to a particular brand and size of shoe, at the time of the criminal trial no evidence was available that defendant O. J. Simpson owned such shoes. In the interval between the criminal and civil trials, pictures depicting Mr. Simpson in such shoes were discovered. The shoes became evidence in the civil trial, when the examiner restated his testimony (Bodziak 2000, pp. 431-458).
To aid in physical and comparison examinations, the QDU maintains the following files that are divided into two types:
- Reference Files: Repositories for information drawn from casework, which are used to relate incoming data to previously examined material, for example, to make an association between two threatening notes.
- Standards Files: Repositories for manufacturers’ and similar primary-source data, which are used to determine the source of an item of evidence, for example, the maker of a style of typeface.
Anonymous Letter File and Bank Robbery Note File: Contain information about and images of threatening letters or messages (meeting certain criteria) and notes used during bank robberies and some extortion cases.
Checkwriter File: Provides a variety of sources (references) for determining the manufacturer or defining characteristics (standards) of checkwriter apparatus or both. This file also contains some case materials.
National Fraudulent Check File: Contains information pertaining to checks handled during QDU casework. This reference file includes sections devoted to signatures, company names, counterfeit checks, money orders, and travelers’ checks.
National Motor Vehicle Certificate of Title File: Contains examples of authentic certificates of title, as well as previously submitted fraudulent titles.
Office Equipment File: Consists of source materials regarding typewriters, printers, photocopiers, facsimiles, and related equipment. This file provides a means of classifying office equipment, as well as standards for comparison purposes.
Shoeprint and Tire Tread Files: Contain manufacturers’ information and information from previously submitted evidence. These standards files are used for determining the brand name and model of items having made an impression on evidence recovered at crime scenes.
Watermark File: Consists of reference information pertaining to watermarks and other paper-manufacturing matters and examples of unusual watermarks drawn from casework.
Evidence received: Ten checks bearing original signatures and endorsements (designated Q1 through Q10) and known writing from two individuals (designated K1 and K2).
Request: Handwriting comparison.
Preliminary administrative procedures must occur first. They include the following:
- Acknowledging receipt of the evidence;
- Checking the evidence against the incoming communication (to ensure consistency);
- Assigning unique identifying numbers to the submissions (denoting whether it is questioned or known); and
- Making arrangements for any other requested examinations such as DNA analysis or fingerprint comparisons.
A listing of the evidence is then recorded on a Laboratory worksheet, and a visual, scanned record is prepared.
Typically, checks are side lighted for possible indented writing. The ESDA is used only when specifically indicated.
Examinations of checks often begin with the identification and evaluation of the
printing processes used. Are they consistent with one another and with genuine checks? If printing process anomalies are observed, the checks may be counterfeit. Other physical features of checks that interest document examiners are the safety features (watermarks), microprinting (usually in the signature line or as a border), and the type of checkwriter (if any) used.
The handwriting on the checks will be evaluated for suitability for comparisons. The known writing will be examined separately to determine whether it is original, comparable to that on the checks, and sufficient in quantity for viable comparisons. If these criteria are met, a side-by-side comparison of the questioned and known writing is undertaken.
File searches for checks are conducted in the National Fraudulent Check File: always in the signature and company name sections, and, if applicable, in other specific portions of this file. Printing processes are sometimes searched in the Office Equipment File, and the Checkwriter File may be accessed, if applicable.
Applicants to the FBI QDU examiner training program must meet all FBI employment requirements. In addition, an applicant must be a college graduate and willing to respond to knowledge, skills, and ability questions. The physical requirements include acute vision, no color blindness, and the ability to lift at least 50 pounds.
The training consists of a two-year, collegiate-style program that includes formal classroom training and actual document examinations, conducted under the guidance and evaluation of experienced document examiners. Some of the classroom portions of the training may be abridged if the individual has substantive prior experience as a document examiner. At least five moot courts are administered to each applicant as a condition of certification.
After completing this training program, each trainee must be capable of independently conducting nondestructive forensic examinations on documentary evidence that result in accurate opinions and presenting findings as an expert witness in formal legal proceedings.
Additional information on the forensic examination of questioned documents, shoeprints, and tire treads is available in the Questioned Documents Examinations and the Shoeprints and Tire Treads Examinations sections of the Handbook of Forensic Services.
For more information about the Questioned Documents Unit, call or write:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Questioned Documents Unit
935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20535-0001
Bodziak, W. J. Footwear Impression Evidence: Detection, Recovery, and Examination. 2d ed., CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2000. Available at http://www.crcpress.com/
Dorman, M. Our story: Held for ransom: A kidnapping in Westbury set off an intense manhunt as the country awaited word of a child’s fate, Newsday, June 1, 1998.
Johnston, D. 17-year search, an emotional discovery and terror ends, New York Times, May 5, 1998.
Lockwood-Post’s Directory of the Pulp, Paper and Allied Trades (North American Edition). Miller Freeman Co., San Francisco, California, 2000. Available at http://www.pulp-paper.com/
Mead Corporation. Paper Knowledge. Mead Corporation, Dayton, Ohio, 1990. Available at http://www.mead.com/
Mokrzycki, G. M. Advances in document examination: The Video Spectral Comparator 2000, Forensic Science Communications [Online] (October 1999). Available: http://www.fbi.gov/programs/lab/fsc/backissu/oct1999/mokrzyck.htm
Polk’s Motor Vehicle Registration Manual. R. L. Polk and Co., Detroit, Michigan, 1990.
Tire Guide. Tire Guides, Inc., Boca Raton, Florida, 2000. Available at http://www.tireguides.com/
Tread Design Guide. Tire Guides, Inc., Boca Raton, Florida, 2000. Available at http://www.tireguides.com/
Vastrick, T. W. Classification and Identification of Checkwriters. American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc., Houston, Texas, 1991. Available at http://asqde.org/