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Presentations from the 2nd International Symposium on the Forensic Examination of Questioned Documents (Part 7; Forensic Science Communications, October 1999)


October 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 3

Presentations at the
2nd International Symposium on the
Forensic Examination of Questioned Documents
Albany, New York

June 14 – 18, 1999

Part 7

The following abstracts of the presentations are ordered alphabetically by authors’ last names.

Demonstrating Natural Variation—Write-On Software:
A New Tool
J. L. Sang
Sang Forensic Document Laboratory
Glen Head, New York

A forensic document examiner’s examination, comparison, and evaluation of questioned and known handwriting takes into account many factors or characteristics.

One important factor is natural variation or range of variation. Hilton, in his book, Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, defines natural variation as “normal or usual deviations found between repeated specimens of any individual’s handwriting or in the product of any typewriter or other record making machine.” When considering this important element, we are reminded by Hilton that “No repeated act is always accomplished with identically the same results regardless of whether it is produced by a machine or human effort. An individual’s handwriting is made up of a complexity of habitual patterns that are repeated within a typical range of variation around the model patterns.”

In review, Albert S. Osborn in his book, Questioned Document Problems, provides some of the main causes of variation in writing:

  • Varying methods and degrees of thoroughness in teaching.
  • Varying personalities.
  • Varying occupations.
  • Amount of writing done.
  • Manual skill.
  • Artistic ability.
  • Influence of other writers.
  • Quality of eyesight.
  • Position at desk.
  • Relation of arm to line of writing.
  • Character of pens, ink, and paper habitually used.
  • Relation of the two pen nibs to paper surface.
  • Extended or bent fingers in pen-holding.
  • Free lateral arm movement.
  • Writing with only finger or hand muscles.
  • Angle of penholder to paper surface.
  • Uneven pressure of the two pen nibs.
  • Slant.
  • Size.
  • Proportions.
  • Spacing.
  • Alignment.
  • Having qualities developed in actual writing.
  • Development of unusual freakish and grotesque forms.
  • Tendencies toward flourishes or toward abbreviation of letters.

Document examiners record natural variation by the following methods:

  • Cut-out charts.
  • Highlighting characters.
  • Handwritten, dictated, or typed notes.
  • Diagrams.
  • Mentally recording the notes.
  • Videotaping.

There are many court cases today where the court wants statistical data or other forms of proof to justify an expert’s opinion.

Pakaso Software Inc. (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), in collaboration with forensic document examiners, is developing a software program, Write-On, to assist in analyzing typed or handwritten documents and recording data for reporting the results of the analyses. Write-On will also be a valuable research tool. The projected completion date of the program is the summer of 1999. A trial version of the software can be downloaded from www.pikaso.com/write-on.

Write-On was developed for document examiners to dissect and report on large quantities of handwritten documents. The program assists in obtaining and illustrating case notes, search statistics, occurrence charts, and comparison and/or court charts.

Write-On generates four charts:

Computer screen showing occurrence statistics chart
Occurrence Statistics:
This chart lists hits for a given character or characteristic in questioned or known documents. This will be useful when evaluating if there are sufficient comparison features to show the extent of natural variation.

Computer screen showing occupance map
Occupance Map:
Illustrates the location of the search characteristics on the computer-generated original document.

Computer screen showing occurrence chart
Occurrence Chart:
This chart lists the questioned hits on the left and all the known hits on the right. This chart allows for the assessment of natural variation in both sets of documents.

Computer screen showing court chart
Court Chart:
This chart allows the examiner to copy and paste the various characteristics from the occurrence chart into the court chart or search for whole words and number sequences and place them in a presentation format.

Daubert Hearings: Case Scenario
F. S. Shiver
U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory
Forest Park, Georgia

The speaker was involved in two Daubert hearings and observed a third concerning the admissibility of handwriting evidence. The hearings took place in federal district court in Atlanta, Georgia. The hearings involved the testimony of Professor Mark Denbeaux, Seton Hall University, School of Law, as a defense expert critic on the subject of handwriting identification.

The purpose of the critic was to cast doubt on the methodology of handwriting identification. Professor Denbeaux bases his expertise, in part, upon a law review article he co-authored in 1989 which was critical of the field of document examination. Professor Denbeaux does not claim to be trained in document examination; however, he bases his opinions on the review of proficiency tests given to document examiners in the 1970s and 1980s. From this he draws the conclusions that document examiners are likely to be right 57% of the time and wrong 43% of the time. Further, there is no credible evidence that document examiners can out perform lay people.

The first hearing resulted in a guilty plea by the defendant. A trial did not occur after the second hearing. Subsequent to the last of these three hearings, U.S. v. Paul, Professor Denbeaux was allowed to testify at the trial but not at the retrial. This lower court ruling was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which stated of Profesor Denbeaux, “his skill, experience, training, and education as a lawyer did not make him any more qualified to testify as an expert on handwriting analysis than a lay person who had read the same articles.” The testimony of the document examiner was allowed at the trial and the admissibility of the document examiner’s opinion was upheld by the circuit court. 

SWGDOC Subcommittee for Standard and Operating Procedures Terminology
F. S. Shiver

U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory
Forest Park, Georgia

In June 1997, the Scientific Working Group for Questioned Document Examination (SWGDOC) formed a subcommittee to prepare various guidelines for the forensic examination of documents. The subcommittee began working on guidelines for the comparison of handwriting.

Since that time, the subcommittee developed the Guidelines for the Examination of Handwritten Items. These guidelines provide a methodology for the comparison and identification of handwriting, handprinting, and signatures.

The guidelines are now in a period of formal comment. Early in 1999 approximately 400 comment booklets were mailed to forensic document examiners across the United States. One hundred and twenty comment booklets were returned to the subcommittee. Many document examiners made suggestions for modifications to the guidelines. The subcommittee will consider these suggestions in July of 1999 and make recommendations concerning any proposed changes to the main SWGDOC committee in November 1999. 

Individual and Interesting Letter Formations
D. K. Tolliver
Indiana State Police Laboratory
Indianapolis, Indiana

When a writer customizes the construction of a letter to the extent that it does not resemble any common style of handwriting, the weight the document examiner places on that character increases. A survey of naturally executed exemplars in the files of the Indiana State Police Laboratory revealed many unusual letter formations. When some of these letter formations are displayed alone, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to interpret what the letter represents. When displayed with the remainder of the word, it may still be difficult to interpret.

A selection of these unusual letter formations follows.

Handwriting sample
Uppercase “E” in Elizabeth. 
Handwriting samples
Upper- and lowercase “E”s in the abbreviations for Evansville.


Handwriting samples
Uppercase “K” in Kilpatrick. 
Handwriting samples
Uppercase “L” in Lake and Lawrence. 


  Handwriting samples
Uppercase “T” in Twenty and Thirty.  


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