Obtaining Requested Known Handwriting Specimens
By Ronald N. Morris
The handwriting comparison process starts with the investigator! If he obtains and submits the evidence necessary for a meaningful examination and comparison, the results he receives will be worth the effort. That is not to imply that he will always have his suspect identified as the writer. What he will receive is a report that better reflects the quantity and quality of the observable evidence in the submitted documents.
Proper preparation is essential before submitting documents to the laboratory for examination. The standard applied by the Forensic Document Examiner (FDE), in the absences of observable evidence which allows for the accurate and verifiable interpretation of the significance of evidence, is that the results he reports becomes nothing more than speculation. FDE’s should never speculate or make assumptions that cannot be supported by evidence in the documents. Therefore, the opinion the investigator gets back from the laboratory is directly related to the quantity and quality of the evidence he submits. The colloquial expression is, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Obtaining known writing is a very important part of the process. This paper discusses what the investigator needs to know to obtain suitable known handwriting and hand printing specimens for comparison purposes.
Following are some of the ways the investigator can prepare for, and things he can do during, the interview process in which a person will also be asked to provide requested writing.
BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
Obtaining Requested Known Handwriting Specimens
1. Know the Questioned Material!!!!
Study the details of the questioned writing and know the following:
1) Know what letterforms are in upper and lower case.
2) Know the style of the writing as illustrated by the general shapes of the letters and their variations.
3) Know what writing materials, implement and medium, was used to write the questioned writing; i.e. pen, pencil, blank or pre-ruled lined paper, a form, etc. Be prepared to duplicate them as closely as possible, if necessary, to obtain known writing.
4) Determine whether the questioned writing may be unnaturally written or disguised.
5) Ascertain the possible conditions un which the questioned writing was written and any other factors that might have had an impact on the writing.
2. Know How Your Suspect Writes!
If possible, obtain a sample of his normal, everyday writing before the interview session. This writing is known as, “normal course of business” or “collected” writing.” Attached to this article is a list of 101 possible sources of such writing that may be of some assistance.
Two important cautions about obtaining and using this type of writing are: 1) The investigator must be sure that the writing he collects was written by his suspect 2) And, if the collected writing is to be used as part of the handwriting examination,
the attorney must be able to get it admitted into evidence at time of trial.
If either or both of these is not known with certainty, the possible results range from an error in the handwriting opinion to having all of the document evidence thrown out of court. If any of the collected writing submitted for examination is not admitted into evidence, and it was relied on during the examination, the report is no longer valid. Another examination and comparison will have to be conducted with the remaining writing. Frequently, the new examination and comparison will result in a different opinion. The importance of this part of the investigator’s duty cannot be over-emphasized.
3. Be Prepared for the Session!!
Before the interview, collect all items necessary to obtain the known writing. If done before, the interview will be less confusing, and the investigator will have greater control of the interview situation. Since part of the interview is concerned with gathering information and part with obtaining known writing or collecting other evidence, blend the two activities together using one as a diversion from the other. For example, start the interview by obtaining information, then break to obtain some known handwriting, return to the interview, and break again later to obtain additional known handwriting. Mixing the two activities is desirable, and in some instances necessary also to distract the writer, particularly if he is trying to write unnaturally or disguise the known writing. If he is writing normally, the break should have no effect on how he is writing the known writing.
The rational for this procedure is based on the premise that if someone is disguising their writing, the distraction occurring between writing sessions may be sufficient for the writer to forget how he is attempting to disguise his writing. Remember, the purpose for obtaining requested hand writing is to obtain normal, natural handwriting. Obtaining disguised writing is usually a waste of time and only increases the investigator’s frustration level. The assumption made here is that the questioned writing that will be compared to the known handwriting is also naturally written.
SUGGESTED PROCEDURE FOR OBTAINING KNOWN HANDWRITING SPECIMENS
1. Do Not Allow The Writer To See The Questioned Writing!!!!!!!!!!!!!
NEVER allow the known writer to see, touch, or in any way come into contact with the questioned writing during the investigation. There is no better way of having the questioned document or even the whole case, thrown out than by allowing the person being interviewed to see, touch, or hold the questioned document during the investigative phase.
The author was involved in a case where the investigator placed a copy of the questioned writing on the table in front of the writer and told him to write, “just like this.” When the judge heard that testimony during the trial, he through out all the evidence, dismissed the whole case, and informed the parties that all charges against the defendant “would be permanently dismissed.”
In another trial, the author heard a defense attorney argue that the investigator handed the questioned document to his client during the interview process and that is why his client’s prints are on it. In fact, the investigator never had the actual questioned document during the investigative phase, but he did have a photocopy of the document that he handed to the suspect. Since only the two of them were present at the time of the incident, it became a case of he says, he says, and who does the judge, or jury, believe.
Can the investigator provide specific instructions to a known writer? He can, but whatever instructions he gives must be written in the margin of the handwriting specimen form after the writer completes it, then initialed and dated by the investigator giving the instruction. When writing in the margin, the investigator must be sure that his writing is easily distinguished from, and does not overlap, that of the known writer.
In situations where the questioned writing is a long letter or a couple pages of writing, the investigator should provide a typed transcript of the questioned material to the known writer for use as a text guide when writing. If done this way, then the typed document should be initialed and dated by the known writer and investigator, and submitted to the laboratory with the other documents.
2. Duplicate The Writing Material As Closely As Possible
There are two types of requested handwriting specimen forms. The first is a “general” form, the second a “specific” form. General forms usually contain spaces for the person to write general personal information about himself, the alphabet, some non-descript words, and numerals, all of which probably do not repeat the questioned writing.
Caution, the investigator must never “complete” any of the personal information section. If the known writer leaves something blank, leave it blank.
Since the general form does not necessarily contain any of the questioned material, its use is recommended, ideally to provide a sample of the writer’s normal handwriting. However, many of the same letter and letter combinations found in the questioned writing may be present in the words, phrases, etc., on this form. Sample forms of this type are attached for the investigator to copy and use. (Cursive—HSF No. 1 and Printing—HSF No. 2) When used, these forms should be completed by the known writer before obtaining specimens repeating the questioned writing.
If the questioned writing is on a form, such as a, check, sales slip, application, etc., then use of a similar form, or a specially designed known handwriting specimen form with similar printed formats, can be used to obtain requested handwriting. With computer technology being what it is today, it does not take much to create a form similar to the one in question, or develop one having similar size spaces as those on the questioned document. What is important is that the specimen writer be provided with a document having spaces approximately the same size as those containing the questioned writing. (Sample check— HSF No. 3, letter—HSF No. 4, signature—HSF No. 5 forms are part of this article for the investigator to copy and use.)
3. Dictate The Questioned Material or Provide The Specimen Writer With A Typed Copy Of The Questioned Material
The investigator must NEVER write, print, or in any way provide the known writer with any hand written model of a feature, letterform, or combination of letters, text, etc., to copy. If the specimen writer has a hand written model before him, he will usually attempt to simulate it and not write the material as he normally would.
So how does the investigator obtain writing repeating specific material without showing the questioned writing to the specimen writer? A couple suggested ways are:
1) Dictation—Dictate the questioned material to the specimen writer.
2) Typed copy—Type the questioned material on a sheet of paper and give that to the specimen writer.
Dictation is a preferred way. However, there is one significant caution that the investigator must exercise when dictating—he should never tell the writer how to spell a word, especially if it is misspelled in the questioned writing. Misspellings are one of the factors considered by the FDE when performing an examination and comparison. While misspellings have weight, they are of limited value and certainly do not have the same significance as the characteristic qualities and features of the handwriting. The same is true when using a typed model of the questioned material.
Watch the known writer. As he writes, ask yourself if the known writing is larger, smaller, faster, or slower than the sample of his normal writing that you have obtained as a reference. In addition, try to determine if the features, letters, and letter combinations are consistent with, or different from, those in the questioned material.
Remove completed known writing from the writer’s view as they are completed. After initialing and dating them as the witness, the investigator should turn them over and move them away from the known writer so he cannot use them as a model for future writing.
Some “specific” signature forms have a column where signatures are written in a list format, and if the known writer is attempting to disguise his writing, he can use what he has written before as a model for what he is about to write. To overcome this disadvantage of the column form, the investigator can use slips of paper slightly larger than the width of the questioned signature or material. As each form is completed, it should be removed from the writer’s view.
6. Be Observant
As has been mentioned, the investigator must watch the known writer as he writes. If he does not, the writer may be successful in disguising his writing, using his unaccustomed hand, or altering features and letter designs he believes are less identifiable than others.
Obtaining requested known handwriting specimens, cont.
If the known writer is the one who wrote the questioned writing, he may try to write unnaturally or disguise his writing when writing the known. The investigator should be prepared to bring this attempt to write unnaturally or disguise the writing to his attention by referring to the nonrequest writing he has already obtained. The follow-up question to ask the known writer is why the two writings are different.
One case the author remembers involved an investigator who placed a standard handwriting specimen form in front of a writer, giving her instructions to complete the form, then he went on doing other things. He did not watch his suspect write. She wrote all of the forms using her unaccustomed hand. After the suspect completed the forms the investigator collected them, and the known writer left. The investigator had to go back to court, explain to the judge what had happened, and then repeat the session.
Additional questions the investigator may want to ask himself while the known is being written are:
1) Is the writer physically able to write? In other words, is he under the influence of drugs, is his writing hand injured, etc.
2) In the writing session, is there anything impairing his ability to write, such as handcuffs on his wrist, books and papers on the same area he is using, a rough writing surface, etc.?
3) How does this writer write letters and letter combinations? 4) Are the letter designs unusual or bizarre in shape, size, placement, etc.? 5) Is the writer paying undue attention to how he writes, rather than to what he is
writing? 6) Are the differences present, possibly the result of the investigator having the wrong
writer or the result of some else, such as the writer being able to write more than one style of writing equally well, or some other factor?
Being observant is more than just watching the writer write. It involves studying the questioned, collected, and known writing. When obtaining known writing the investigator should note how the known writer holds the pen and positions the paper when he writes, the pressure he places on the pen and resulting embossing in the paper, any changes that occur in his writing when asked to write the questioned material and not unrelated material, etc. Obtaining known writing involves being sensitive to the text and word usage, the possible use of foreign system letters or accents, special features of some individual letters or numerals that may be the result of special training in a technical field etc.
Recognizing the characteristics of unaccustomed hand writing in the questioned writing is very important so the investigator can obtain some of the requested known writing, written with the unaccustomed hand. The requested unaccustomed handwriting obtained should only be written after the accustomed or normal handwriting is written.
Note any special instructions given to the known writer on the handwriting form or sheet of paper, as discussed above. Also, note on each form or sheet of paper the sequence in which it was written by paginated numbering system written at the bottom of each page. This can be very useful information in the event the known writer is disguising his writing, because it provides a time line that may assist in determining whether the writer was able to retain his disguise, or when he started to revert to his natural writing.
SUBMISSION TO THE LABORATORY
After the specimens are completed and the investigator is preparing to submit the case to the laboratory, he should do the following:
1) Submit ALL writing specimens obtained with the questioned writing. NEVER withhold any specimen writing, because doing so may have an impact on the handwriting examination and resulting opinion. The cautions described above concerning the use of nonrequest writing should be remembered when submitting them to the laboratory as part of the evidence to be examined.
2) The questioned and specimen documents should be placed in a separate, sealed envelope for submission to the laboratory. If the specimen writing of more then one writer is being submitted, than each writer’s specimen should be placed in a separate sealed envelope, together with a list properly identifying its contents and the envelop initialed, and dated at the time the documents were placed in it, and sealed.
3) If, after his initial examination the examiner asks for additional specimen writing, it and the writing initially submitted for examination should be returned to the laboratory for collective consideration.
4) A chain of custody record should be prepared, detailing each document, questioned and known, sent to the laboratory. A place should be provided for each person having contact with the envelope or package to date, initial, describe why he had it, and what disposition he made of the package.
There is nothing complicated about obtaining known handwriting, and all the information above can be summarized in the following three phrases:
1. BE PREPARED!
2. BE OBSERVANT!
3. BE THINKING!
The standard applied by the FDE must always be that in the absences of observable evidence which allows for the accurate and verifiable interpretation of the significance of evidence the result he reports becomes nothing more than speculation. Therefore, the opinion the investigator gets back from the laboratory is directly related to the quantity and quality of the evidence submitted for examination. There are times however, when the investigators does all the right things, submits quality evidence to the laboratory for examination, and still gets back a report he believes is in error.
The author remembers working a case where this happened that illustrates the point. The investigator had a lot of persuasive evidence showing that his suspect wrote the questioned material. He had the suspect on film standing at the bank counter writing the questioned signatures. What the investigator did not know at the time of his initial investigation, that his suspect had an identical twin. The identical twin was now deceased. Further investigation suggested it was the identical twin who actually was the writer of the questioned signatures. That was confirmed by his identification, based on the common handwriting characteristics in both the questioned and known writing.
The similarity between the first suspect’s writing and the questioned signatures was due to what some call family similarity or common characteristic qualities and features found in the writing of both writers’. However, most of the similarity was due to the minimum amount of individuality in their writings that separated one writer from the other. The pictorial similarity between the two writers’ writing outweighed the truly individual features of the writing as far as the investigator was concerned. The original suspect was subsequently cleared on the second submission of evidence to the laboratory, and the deceased twin identified as the writer of the questioned signatures.
The investigator and the FDE are part of a team searching for the truth of a series of events and activities by one or more persons. Working together, the investigator collects evidence for submission to the laboratory, and the FDE examines that evidence to tries to determine whether or not there is common authorship of the writing, or conduct other necessary examinations on the submitted documents. That is what this paper is about—the investigator and FDE trying to assist each other in obtaining the documents necessary to conduct a meaningful examination and comparison.