Questioned document examination

Questioned document examination

Questioned document examination (QDE) is the forensic discipline pertaining to documents that are (or may be) in dispute in a court of law. The primary purpose of forensic document examination is to answer questions about a disputed document using a variety of scientific processes and methods. Many examinations involve a comparison of the questioned document, or components of the document, to a set of known standards. The most common type of examination involves handwriting wherein the examiner tries to address concerns about potential authorship.

A document examiner is often asked to determine if a questioned item originated from the same source as the known item(s), then present their opinion on the matter in court as an expert witness. Other common tasks include determining what has happened to a document, determining when a document was produced, or deciphering information on the document that has been obscured, obliterated or erased.

The discipline is known by many names including "forensic document examination", "document examination", "diplomatics", "handwriting examination", or sometimes "handwriting analysis", although the latter term is not often used as it may be confused with graphology. Likewise a forensic document examiner is not to be confused with a graphologist, and vice versa.

cope of document examination

Forensic document examiner is intimately linked to the legal system as a forensic scientist. Forensic science is the application of science to address issues under consideration in the legal system.

Common criminal charges involved in a document examination case fall into the "white-collar crime" category. These include identity theft, forgery, counterfeiting, fraud, or uttering a forged document. Questioned documents are often important in other contexts simply because documents are used in so many different contexts and for so many different purposes. For example, a person may commit murder and forge a suicide note. This is an example wherein a document is produced directly as a fundamental part of a crime. More often a questioned document is simply the by-product of normal day-to-day business or personal activities.

A forensic document examiner deals with items that form part of a case which may or may not come before a court of law. The many types of possible examinations include the following:

*Handwriting (cursive / printing) and Signatures
*Typewriters, Photocopiers, Laser printers, Ink Jet Printers, Fax machines
*Chequewriters, Rubber stamps, Price markers, Label makers
*Printing Processes
*Ink, Pencil, Paper
*Alterations, additions, erasures, obliterations
*Sequence of Strokes
*Physical Matching

ASTM Standard E444-98 (Standard Description of Scope of Work Relating to Forensic Document Examination) indicates there are four components to the work of a forensic document examiner. It states that an examiner "makes scientific examinations, comparisons, and analyses of documents in order to:
# establish genuineness or nongenuineness, or to expose forgery, or to reveal alterations, additions or deletions,
# identify or eliminate persons as the source of handwriting,
# identify or eliminate the source of typewriting or other impression, marks, or relative evidence, and
# write reports or give testimony, when needed, to aid the users of the examiner's services in understanding the examiner's findings."

Some forensic document examiners limit their work to the examination and comparison of handwriting but most inspect and examine the whole document in accordance with this ASTM standard.

What sort of documents are examined?

Documents feature prominently in all manner of business and personal affairs. Almost any type of document may become disputed in an investigation or litigation. For example, a questioned document may be a sheet of paper bearing handwriting or mechanically-produced text such as a ransom note, a forged cheque or a business contract. Or it may be some material not normally thought of as a 'document'. Forensic document examiners define the word "document" in a very broad sense as being any material bearing marks, signs or symbols intended to convey a message or meaning to someone. This encompasses traditional paper documents but also includes things like graffiti on a wall, stamp impressions on meat products, or covert markings hidden in a written letter, among other things.

Historical cases

* The National Archives forgeries (aka Martin Allen forgeries) (2005)
* The Mark Hofmann forgeries and murders (1980-84)
* The Hitler Diaries (1983)
* The Paul Jennings Hill murders (1994)
* The Howland will forgery trial (1868)
* The JonBenét Ramsey murder (1996)
* The Killian memos (2004)
* The Lindbergh kidnapping (1934) where comparison of the ransom note and Hauptman's handwriting was crucial
* Clifford Irving and the Howard Hughes biography (1972)
* The Martha Stewart trial (2004)
* The Mormon Will (1978)
* Nina Wang and the Teddy Wang will forgery (2002)
* The Yellowcake Forgery (2003)
* The Himmler forged documents in the The National Archives (2005)
* The Zodiac Killer (1969)

Although the crimes were committed some time before the discipline of document examination was firmly established, the letters of the Jack the Ripper case have since been examined in great detail.


A person who desires to enter a career of forensic document examination must possess certain traits and abilities. First and foremost, excellent eyesight is required in order to see fine details that are otherwise inconspicuous. The aspirant must also pass a form blindness test in order to ensure that the aspirant does not suffer from the condition of being unable to tell apart two similarly-appearing, yet different, items. Similarly successful completion of a test for color perception is normal. A bachelor of science degree is also typically required, as it gives the aspirant a scientific background with which to approach the work in an objective manner, as well as bestowing necessary biological, physical, and chemical knowledge sometimes called upon. ASTM Standard E2388-05 (Standard Guide for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners) has "an earned baccalaureate degree or equivalent" as one of several requirements. Additional desirable skills would include knowledge of paper, ink, printing processes, or handwriting.


There are three possible methods of instruction for an aspiring document examiner:

# Self-education is the way in which the pioneers of the field began, as there was no other method of instruction.
# Apprenticeship has become the widespread manner in which many examiners are now taught. In fact, this is the method that is recommended by ASTM in Standard E2388-05. To conform with the ASTM standard such training "shall be the equivalent of a minimum of 24 months full-time training under the supervision of a principal trainer" and "the training program shall be successfully completed in a period not to exceed four years". The training program must also include an extensive list of specific syllabus topics outlined in ASTM Standard E2388-05.
# College and/or university programs are very limited at this time. This is due, in part, to the relatively limited demand for forensic document examiners. It also relates to the need for extensive practical experience; particularly with respect to handwriting examination. It is difficult to include this degree of practical experience in a normal academic program. Nonetheless, a few academic programs directly related to forensic document examination are:
## [ Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona (Cataluña,España)]
## [ Oklahoma State University Grad Program in Forensic Science]
## [ L'Université de Lausanne Institut de Police Scientifique (Lausanne, Switzerland)]
## [ University of Lancashire, MSc in Document Analysis (Lancashire, UK)]
## [ Institut fur Schrift- und Urkundenuntersuchung (Mannheim, Germany]

A more extensive listing relating to forensic training may be viewed at the website for the [ Canadian Society of Forensic Science]

There are some distance learning courses available as well. These are taught through a virtual reality classroom and may include an apprenticeship and/or a correspondence course.

A forensic document examination trainee must learn how to present evidence before the court in clear, forceful testimony. Fledgling examiners in the later stages of training can get a glimpse into the legal process as well as a better sense of this aspect of their work through participation in a mock trial or by attending actual court hearings to observe the testimony of qualified examiners.


The examination of handwriting to assess potential authorship proceeds from the principle of identification which can be expressed as: "Two writings are the product of one person if the similarities, when taken in combination, are sufficiently individual and there are no fundamental unexplainable differences."

There are three stages in the process of examination. In brief, they are [Huber & Headrick 1999, pg. 34.] :

# Analysis: The questioned and the known items are analyzed and broken down to directly perceptible characteristics.
# Comparison: The characteristics of the questioned item are then compared against the known standard.
# Evaluation: Similarities and/or differences in the compared properties are evaluated and this determines which ones are valuable for a conclusion. This depends on the uniqueness and frequency of occurrence in the items.

The procedure sometimes also involves a fourth step consisting of validation or peer review.

ASTM Standard E2290-03 (Standard Guide for Examination of Handwriting) outlines the procedure followed by most reputable examiners. Another method is provided online by the Forensic Expertise Profiling Laboratory (School of Human Biosciences, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia). The method is divided into 11 modules which may be accessed via the FEPL website [] .

Common tools of the trade

*Excellent Eyesight
*Electrostatic Detection Apparatus (ESDA)
*Video Spectral Comparator (VSC)

Professional organizations

Links provided below

*American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) - USA
*American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) - USA
*Australasian Society of Forensic Document Examiners (ASFDE) - Australia/Asia
*Canadian Society of Forensic Science (CSFS) - Canada
*European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI) - Europe
**European Network of Forensic Handwriting Experts (ENFHEX)
**European Document Experts Working Group (EDEWG)
*Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SWAFDE) - Southwest USA
*Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE) - Southeast USA
*Forensic Science Society (FSS) - United Kingdom
*International Association for Identification (IAI)
*Gesellschaft für Forensische Schriftuntersuchung (GFS) - Frankfurt (Germany)
*National Association of Document Examiners (NADE)
*Association of Forensic Document Examiners (AFDE)
*Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists (MAAFS)



A document examiner may be certified by the [ American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc. (ABFDE)] , which was formed in 1977 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The ABFDE is one of two bodies accredited and recognized by the [ Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, Inc (FSAB)] to carry out certification of forensic document examiners. To date, there is no federal licensing involved in the discipline. However, the court has recognized the ABFDE as reputable in the case of U.S. v. Buck, 1987, in denying a motion that claimed that handwriting comparisons were unreliable.

An applicant to the ABFDE for certification must meet the following requirements:
#they must be of good moral character, high integrity and good repute; and possess high ethical and professional standing
#the program is limited to permanent residents of the USA, Canada and Mexico
#must possess a bachelor degree (or higher) from an accredited academic institution, or equivalent
#must successfully have completed a full-time training program of at least 2 years duration in a forensic laboratory recognized by the Board
#must provide three references from forensic document examiners certified or recognized by the Board
#must be actively engaged in the full-time practise of forensic document examination and
#must demonstrate a record of appropriate professional activity in forensic document examination

In addition to meeting the basic requirements listed above, an applicant must also pass comprehensive written, practical and oral examinations that explore the wide range of problems encountered in document examination.

Certificates issued by the ABFDE are valid for five years, and can be renewed. During that five-year renewal period, the diplomate must earn at least 40 continuing education credits. Credits are awarded for a variety of related activities, such as attendance and participation at ABFDE recognized forensic meeting and programs, and publication of articles in journals recognized by the Board. Individuals holding a valid Certificate of Qualification issued by the ABFDE will use the designation "Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners."

ABFDE HistoryJohn J. Harris sat as the inaugural chairman in 1977, and in the following year, the Committee of Certification was created. The board states its objectives as “to establish, maintain and enhance standards of qualification for those who practice forensic document examination, and to certify applicants who comply with ABFDE requirements for qualified specialists.”

Backed by the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE), Canadian Society of Forensic Science (CSFS), and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS), the ABFDE ensures that the applicant satisfies a number of standardized requirements with regular testing to ensure that the examiner performs at the same high level of professionalism, as do the other people in the trade. More-so than merely denoting the attainment of certain academic and minimum standards, board certification indicates that the examiner cares enough about the profession to spend time and effort to adequately prepare himself or herself to properly serve the public. Courts must assess the credibility of the document examiner as an expert witness and to do this they will often rely upon the examiner’s reputation in the profession together with his or her affiliations with credible professional organizations.


The [ Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE)] also provides certification of forensic document examiners. The BFDE is another body accredited and recognized by the [ Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, Inc (FSAB)] in this area.


References ~ Literature

The literature relating to forensic document examination is very extensive. Publications in English, French, German and other languages are readily available. The following is a very brief list of accepted, English-language textbooks:

#Osborn, A.S. (1929). Questioned Documents, 2nd ed. Albany, New York: Boyd Printing Company. Reprinted, Chicago: Nelson-Hall Co.
#Harrison, W.R. (1958). Suspect Documents: Their Scientific Examination. New York: Praeger.
#Conway, J.V.P. (1959). Evidential Documents. Illinois: Charles C Thomas.
#Hilton, O. (1982). Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co.
#Huber R.A. & Headrick A.M. (1999). Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
#Ellen, D. (2005). Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, Third Edition. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
#Morris, R. (2000). Forensic Handwriting Identification: Fundamental Concepts and Principles. Academic Press.
#Levinson, J. (2001). Questioned Documents: A Lawyer's Handbook. San Diego: Academic Press.
#Koppenhaver, K. (2007) Forensic Document Examination, Principles and Practice Humana Press.
#Köller N., Nissen K., Rieß M. & Sadorf E.: Probabilistische Schlussfolgerungen in Schriftgutachten/ Probability Conclusions in Expert Opinions on Handwriting, Luchterhand, Munchen (2004) available online in German & English: []

External links

* [ American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE)]
* [ American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) ]
* [ Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE)]
* [ Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SWAFDE)]
* [ Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE)]
* [ European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI)]
** [ European Network of Forensic Handwriting Experts (ENFHEX)]
** [ European Document Experts Working Group (EDEWG)]
* [ Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination (SWGDOC)]
* [ Gesellschaft für Forensische Schriftuntersuchung (GFS) e. V.] (German and English versions)
* [ American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS)]
* [ Canadian Society of Forensic Science (CSFS)]
* [ Canadian Identification Society (CIS)]
* [ Forensic Science Society (FSS)]
* [ International Association for Identification (IAI)]
* [ National Association of Document Examiners (NADE)]
* [ Association of Forensic Document Examiners (AFDE)]
* [ La Trobe University Forensic Expertise Profiling Laboratory (FEPL)]
* [ Institut für Schrift- und Urkundenuntersuchung (ISU)]
* [ Sociedad Internacional de Peritos en documentoscopia (SIPDO)]

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