With amazing frequency we encounter attorneys, investigators and other professionals who have retained experts based solely upon an advertisement and/or a preliminary telephone call. The selector may have given little thought to the accuracy, background, competency and experience of the expert that he will retain, often entrusting to that individual the outcome of an important trial.
Generally, two categories of individuals are located during inquiries for questioned document examiners. These are Graphologists and Forensic Document Examiners. Although their credentials listed in advertisements sound amazingly similar, they should not be confused.
The Graphologist (or Grapho-analyst)
In the strict sense, graphologists claim to be capable of interpreting the character or personality of the writer by supposed traits left behind in the written line. They do not, by definition, compare handwriting to determine authorship or genuineness of the document.
Based solely upon handwriting, graphologists consider themselves capable of making statements about the honesty, physical attributes and infirmities, or injuries of the writer. Some claim that a self-study and subsequent change of one’s handwriting could control alcoholism, reduce depression and loneliness, turn failure (both social and business) into success, and cause many other miracles. These capabilities, even if possible, are most certainly beyond the realm of the government-trained Forensic Document Examiner.
All too often we find the graphologist attempting to conduct a document comparison, leaning upon past experience, such as it is, with handwriting “analysis” as a qualification for an unrelated examination. Many graphologists do not stop there, but continue on into typewriter identification, photocopier examinations, and even alteration and obliteration recoveries. Many offer their services as handwriting identification experts and even as Forensic Document Examiners in advertisements such as those found in telephone directories and legal newspapers, and in fact, normally far outnumber the Forensic Questioned Document Examiners listed in such publications.
Often, Courts will note that Graphologists cannot supply irrefutable and reproducible evidence to support their opinions, but all too often the graphologist is accepted as an expert in an area of expertise far outside the scope of his or her training and competence.
The Graphology/Forensic Document Examination association can be thought of as similar or analogous to that of the Astrology/Astronomy or Alchemy/Chemistry relationships.
The Forensic Document Examiner
In forensic specialties such as Questioned Document Examination where university degree programs are not readily available, governmental laboratories find it most desirable to seek trainees with a degree in one of the physical sciences. While not a prerequisite, a degree of this type is more appropriate to the instrumental and technical systems of measurement, analysis, evaluation, and application of the “Scientific Method,” which are employed in the examination of evidence, than those degrees in the social sciences or arts.
Pre-armed with a science degree, Forensic Document Examiners must acquire their skills, competency, and experience through on-the-job, apprentice-type training by accepted masters of the trade; those being almost always found in governmental crime laboratories.
Most crime laboratories require that new Questioned Document Examiner candidates possess Baccalaureate Degrees in science as a basic requirement. They may then be tested for form perception, there being those persons that do not inherently have a good appreciation for minor changes in a written line and may even be entirely “form blind”.
Qualified individuals then spend up to two years, or more, in formal training (approximately 3600 hours) before they are permitted to offer testimony in their forensic discipline. This two-year program involves study of the basic texts and numerous publications, on-the-job training that consists of working actual cases subject to critical review, practical and written testing, research programs, and participation in mock trials. Additionally, the new examiner is typically required to attend questioned document seminars and training programs, as they are made available, such as those offered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service. Other outside training may be accomplished by extended stays at other governmental laboratories as such agencies allow. All of this is accomplished before the first word of actual testimony is ever given. The Questioned Document Examiner Trainee will be exposed to decades of experience stockpiled by other examiners before his or her first court appearance.
On the other end of the spectrum is the self-taught expert. Although it is possible for an expert to become competent through self-teaching, it is most unusual to find this. More frequently we find that the self-proclaimed document expert has a smattering of knowledge, little or no college or university training in the sciences and no demonstrable formal or informal training in the specialty area by a governmental agency. Many “new” document examiners coming from the ranks of graphologists, or schools taught by graphologists, fall into this category. Most have no inkling that their training, and therefore competency, is far less than stellar.
The Selection Process
How then does one select a qualified expert? The basic question “Have you ever been employed as a full-time Forensic Document Examiner by a government agency?” is a good first step. A “yes” to this question will likely settle the question of training and experience and separate the true Forensic Document Examiner from Graphologists and self-taught individuals.
It is suggested that further inquiry encompass the expert’s educational background and its relevancy to the field, the expert’s formal discipline training, experience level, professional affiliations, previous court appearances and record for correct opinions. Lacking previous experience or a trustworthy recommendation, the expert seeker must deal in the caveat emptor mode. One must always be on guard for the articulate incompetent.
There are few professional organizations which deal with the crime laboratory specialties. With respect to Questioned Document Examination, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, regional associations such as The Southern Association of Forensic Scientists, The International Association for Identification, and the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners are foremost. However, the attorney who is seeking a qualified expert should be aware of the impressive and similar sounding, though thoroughly inappropriate, professional affiliations which have membership available to the pseudo-scientist or graphologist.
One of the most difficult determinations which the attorney/investigator must make during the selection process is that expert’s track record for correct opinions. The expert is not an impartial judge of the correctness of his opinions, and opposing experts seldom give totally accurate evaluations of their competitors. This portion of the expert’s credentials should be examined through inquiry of other attorneys, judges, police agencies and associates who have first hand familiarity with the expert’s actual work product, ethics, and trial experience.
The term “certification” or “certified” when found in advertisements and resumes of Document Examiners should be viewed cautiously. As many owners of automobiles in need of repair have found, using a “certified” mechanic is anything but a guarantee of competence. Attorneys have discovered, with surprise, that their “certified” expert, who was carefully chosen, is being opposed by another “certified” expert, often certified by the same association.
As of this writing, only the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) offer certifications which are either directly for the Document Examiner or for the Forensic Laboratory. ASCLD serves to certify municipal crime laboratories that contain many forensic disciplines, many including Document Examination facilities and personnel. ASCLD requires periodic testing of each forensic scientist, normally twice a year. To further confuse the certification issue, there are several associations of Graphologists that offer questioned document examination “certification.” Often, “BCDE” (Board Certified Document Examiner) or “CDE” (Certified Document Examiner) follows the name and title of a Graphologist or self-taught “expert” in advertisements and on business cards and letterhead. This is a great hint to look elsewhere.
While many private examiners and some governmental agencies have migrated toward individual certification, many governmental and municipal laboratories do not seek out nor endorse such third-party certifications, but rather leave that question up to the Judicial system by means of qualification processes, voir dire, and Judicial notice.