The first step in any questioned document investigation is the careful preservation and transportation of the evidence to the document laboratory. Once subjected to improper treatment, transportation or storage, document evidence may have a much lessened potential to resolve the issue at hand.
While most evidence submitted to NDL stems from civil matters, we have included some discussion for the handling of evidence that is almost always related to criminal investigations, such as oversized writings and blood or body-fluid stained documents.
Handling Paper-based Evidential Documents
Paper, because of its very composition, is a fragile substance. It has a tendency to absorb surrounding materials, such as oils, dirt, water-based liquids, and the like. With a small amount of help, it will absorb staples, paper-clip marks, tears, cuts, folds, and extraneous notations. Even some forms of light can affect the fiber of a document or the ink found on it. All of these things can seriously undermine the subsequent examination of a document and should be kept in mind during the collection process.
The paper-based document should be collected and kept in much the same condition as when discovered, unless the condition itself is not static and will subject the document to further harm. Under no circumstances should the document be subjected to new folding, stapling, cutting, trimming, or notations. Many investigators and other submitters will draw circles, highlight, or mark in some other manner, the area of the document they would like examined. This is not only unnecessary, but may hinder the examination. It is bad enough for an examiner to have to wade through bank cancellation marks, hole punches, and overwriting, without additional encumbrances to the investigation brought about by an overzealous investigator. Small identification marks (initials) placed in an inconspicuous area of the document are for the most part acceptable. However, if the entire document is subject to scrutiny, such as a latent indented writing examination, even such small markings or excessive handling may prove troublesome to the examiner. Attempts at amateur examinations, such as cleaning, restoration, attempted recovery of indented writing by shading with a pencil, taping a torn note together, etc., should simply not be done.
Packaging of the documents should be a prime consideration as this is the procedure that will protect the evidence until such time as it is examined.
For the most part, manila envelopes conforming to a slightly larger size then the document can be utilized. The surface of this envelope can be marked, the evidence carefully inserted and then sealed by the submitter. This process will obviate the need to mark the evidence itself. Again, care should be taken with such markings. An investigator’s initials, case number, date and other extraneous identifying marks can quite easily be transferred to the document inside the envelope by way of indented writing. This extraneous indented writing, recovered by the examiner during the course of the examination, can blend in with other viable indented writing and confuse the results. Of course, the same guidelines are true if the suspect document is a sheet of carbon paper or NCR paper, or is in conjunction with those materials or papers.
The nature of other types of document evidence will necessarily dictate how best to collect and preserve the evidence for submission to the forensic document laboratory. Common sense and an awareness of the examination to be performed should light the way. Of course one can always call the laboratory for specific direction.
This category of evidence is sometimes found as writings on walls, medicine cabinet mirrors, and so on. It may even be in the form of writing in wet cement used to construct a sidewalk or plaster a building.
The key to the correct submission of this form of document evidence is photography. While in the recent past, 35mm or larger format, black and white film was employed, very satisfactory results may be obtained using today’s high resolution digital cameras. A ruler placed next to the “document” will give the examiner a scale to work with. The utilization of specially trained laboratory technicians, skilled in crime scene photography, should be used when possible. If possible, and often in civil matters it is not, a questioned document examiner can be notified so that he may visit the scene to take his own photographs and view the material first-hand. Only after the evidence has been adequately recorded photographically should there be any attempt made to remove the portion of the wall containing the suspect writing, or the medicine cabinet, or for that matter, the section of sidewalk.
Blood-soaked or Wet Documents
A good rule for this class of document evidence is to maintain, if possible, the evidence in essentially the same state as when found. This is especially true if the document is found in a wet and/or folded condition. Paper, because of the way it is manufactured, contains lignin, a form of glue. A wet sheet of paper folded and allowed to dry almost defies reopening. Blood is potentially more damaging as it will wet the paper causing the gluing action to begin, and it additionally contains starch, a very good glue in of itself. Further, blood can partially or totally obliterate writing found on the document.
Do not allow a folded and wet document to dry completely. This is best accomplished by sealing it in a semi-airtight container, such as a polypropylene bag, taped shut. However, be aware that if the document has been soaked by body fluids, it should not remain in an airtight environment for any extended period of time. Doing so will further damage the document, hinder any subsequent serological examination, and certainly provide an unpleasant atmosphere for the forensic scientist once the bag is opened. You will definitely not make any friends at the laboratory.
Original Documents vs. Photocopies
If at all possible, the original of the questioned document should be made available to the examiner. Originals are often more suitable for examination and comparison than machine copies and often lend themselves to more definitive opinions. Documents in the form of older facsimiles and microfilm reproductions, while useful as standards, may be inadequate as questioned material. Those reproduction methods can mask the very indicators of spuriousness that the Questioned Document Examiner is looking for. However, that said, with today’s modern office equipment the limitations of facsimile reproductions and photocopied documents has been lessoned dramatically and often viable and definitive results may be obtained using these materials. Of course, if the examination is to determine the genuineness of a photocopy (“Xerox” forgery), the photocopy itself is the questioned document.
Once again, common sense should prevail. Evidence that is to undergo multiple forensic examination processes, such as latent fingerprinting, serological examination, or trace evidence examination, should be submitted to the questioned document laboratory first. Many of the procedures and techniques used by other forensic disciplines can partially or even totally destroy document evidence. For example, ninhydrin used for the development of latent fingerprints may “feather” the writing ink used on the document and will destroy any latent indented writing left behind from previously written documents. Notations concerning additional examinations should be clearly defined on an accompanying memorandum, property receipt, or cover letter, and should state clearly what analyses are to be undertaken. If known, a brief synopsis of the circumstances surrounding the case or other information pertaining to the events that encompassed the documents production may be beneficial.
The attorney or investigator collecting document evidence for later submission to the questioned document laboratory must be cautioned against surrendering to temptation and undertaking an amateur examination. This may curtail or perhaps even destroy the evidence’s potential. Many questioned document examiners have received evidence that, suspected of containing indented writings, had been shaded by a pencil in an attempt to make indented writing visible. While this was fine for Dick Tracy’s Crime Stopper’s Notebook, these amateur methods are always less then successful and can destroy or at least lessen the quantity and/or quality of the indented writing that would have been available for the examiner and subsequently recovered using appropriate instrumentation.