Always pay for an expert report

If you are planning on hiring an expert and you are on such a tight budget that you only want a verbal opinion, you should probably ask your boss for some overtime hours. It is always nice to find out what the expert has to offer in the way of support for an opinion. But, what happens if the issue you needed the expert for ends up being a bigger deal than you thought?

  • What do you do without anything in writing?
  • Will you expect the expert to have thoroughly documented her opinions and reasoning?
  • Do you even remember who your expert was?


Computerized Handwriting

I just read on that researchers at the University College London have developed new software that can “perfectly” replicate anyone’s handwriting. I suppose to a layperson, that sounds “perfectly” feasible. After all, computers can do a lot of things that we never would have dreamed of. But, I question how can a computer algorithm recreate the intricate workings – our brain, nervous and muscular-skeletal system – that produce handwriting? (more…)

Are you paying too much for your expert?

Does your expert really cost that much?

Let’s face it, litigation is a pricey proposition for the average person. The time and money spent to take an injustice to court has become prohibitive for all but the most egregious of personal cases. The principals involved are often trumped by the practicalities of paying the attorney fees and having to suffer through exhausting delays and disappointments in the system. I can certainly understand why counsel is hesitant to introduce the added expense of experts for his client. And, I can even understand why the expert is chosen at the very last moment. But the truth is, an expert may be the very element in the case that will save time (and therefore money) for the client. Depending on the case, I have seen many settlements leveraged based on a well-executed expert evaluation and report.

Training or Experience

As a Forensic Document Examiner (FDE), my expertise does not evolve as a result of learning a trade and experiencing the ups and downs of the application of my skills. Such would be the case with most areas of courtroom experts like tradesmen, contractors or architects who testify about building defects, or doctors, nurses or psychologists who offer insight into standards of medical practice. In my area of expertise (as well as a few others), we are trained for the sole purpose of applying our knowledge and skills to the analysis of evidence in potential legal matters involving questions about the authenticity, source or authorship of documents. My only professional reason for being is to assist the court in determining the reliability of the evidence at hand. This places a well-trained FDE such as me, in the position of being an excellent team member and strategic consultant long before a potential court appearance.

Consultant Roles

By including the expert in the case early on, the attorney can gain insight into the value of the evidence and understand different ways of applying the value for his clients benefit. For instance, a case might include an old highly deteriorated photocopy of a document that includes a questionable signature. This may be the only copy of the document known to exist. The attorney receives a scan of the document with the information that the signature has been deemed a “forgery” by opposing counsel. Now what?

Without a better iteration of the document, it is likely that such a finding by a qualified FDE would be impossible to achieve.  Once this is confirmed, it can be argued that the handwriting is virtually illegible, making it necessary to find another avenue to support or deny the validity of the document. This is not a stopping point; there are many aspects of documents that can be analyzed beyond just the handwritten entries. Ignoring these sources of additional information could make a difference in the final outcome because your expert was not on your team in enough time before trial.

Another great way to gain insight into your evidence is to plan your deposition of opposing experts with the assistance of the experts in that field. Every expertise is teeming with idiosyncrasies that normally can only be recognized by another expert. Navigating some of these nuances could be key in determining the real strengths and weaknesses of the expert hired by the opposition. For example, the courts of late are scrutinizing experts’ “methodology” for achieving an opinion. By consulting with the appropriate expert, the attorney can be apprised of the up-to-date standards governing that expert’s specialty. As a result the attorney will be more prepared to strategize the case and your expert will be assisting the trier-of-fact in his decision.

These are a few of the often overlooked or underutilized resources provided by experts in all categories. I contend that when attorneys and clients are open to more interaction with their experts early in the relationship, cases are more likely to go smoother and have the potential of saving money for the courts and clients in the long run. This may not be a particularly popular idea for some attorneys who rely on extended litigation for their livelihood. But, I suppose I look at the courtroom differently. While it is the attorney’s job to advocate for their clients, I am a witness for the truth as I observe and interpret it within the evidence. I would very much like the truth to have something to do with the process, as well.

If you would like to speak to me about a case you have coming up, please call me any time. I answer the phone until about 9pm. (888.760.0339)

#documentexaminer, #forgery, #expertwitness, #court, @forensicqde,

Spotting Fraudulent Education Documents and Degrees



The past few decades has seen a large increase in the number colleges across the United States graduating new students into the workforce. But what if many of the people claiming that they graduating from college are really just using forged documents? Forged degrees have been showing up more often in recent years. So, if you run a business that requires people to have achieved a college degree, how do you tell if someone actually has that degree?

First and foremost, among the red flags you can look for is to check whether the institution on the degree or credentials even exists or has the accreditation possible to give the degree. If it does, make sure it also offers the degree that is in question. You can find this information through a number of databases. Look up the college name and city on search engines and the results should be an indicator if it is real.

If that information is accurate and correct, then you should check the degree more closely. The first thing to pay attention to on the document is any misspellings, incorrect identities, and whether the signature is actually an inked signature.

Further investigation will require some experience and knowledge. Is there an official seal or stamp on the degree or document? Is the paper quality poor? Does the degree seem mis-aligned? These are all important things to check. Perhaps you can suspect a forgery if the answers to your investigation are questionable. Finally, you need to look over the language used in the document. If it has an informal feel to it, or grammar and spelling are off then you could have a forged document.

These are all simple things to look over, and they could save you in the long run if a college degree is a crucial aspect of your employment requirements. You do not want to find yourself hiring an unvetted employee, especially one with fake credentials. If you want an expert opinion, a forensic document examiner can verify your suspicions.


Certification is not for the Faint of Heart

2014 Linda Headshop
Linda L Mitchell, D-ABFDE

I am very proud to announce that I have successfully completed testing by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners required for certification. The letters, “D-ABFDE” that follow my name indicate that I am a Diplomate of ABFDE. By achieving this designation, I have been certified as having the necessary skills and qualifications to perform the duties of a forensic document examiner.

Others who have gone before me have said that certification is not for the faint of heard. I am certified because I chose to undergo close scrutiny by a number of my colleagues who have far more experience than I. After a background check and vetting, I passed a written exam. Then, a committee inspected my written casework of five representative problems for its thoroughness, clarity and accuracy. From these cases, three were chosen for presentation to another committee who confirmed that I adhere to proper protocol and that I have the ability to communicate clearly under pressure. This entire process began over a year ago and represents the culmination of a major professional goal of mine.

Of course, all of this would not have been possible without the guidance and encouragement of many people. First, and foremost, I must thank my teacher, trainer, mentor and friend, Manny Gonzales for his constant patience. As my trainer, he sacrificed hours of his personal time to provide me with an irreplaceable gift of knowledge and experience and I will always be grateful for the wisdom he shared and for the doors he held open for me.

Several other colleagues have made a memorable difference in my professional life.
Dave Moore was the first Certified FDE to call me toward “the light.” It was his direction that lead me to seek a qualified trainer. He also provided me with a great sounding board during my training.
Linton Mohammed, senior FDE at the San Diego Sheriff Crime Lab at the time I began this journey, gave me a goal…”graduate from college, then look for a trainer.”
Hugh Curfman and Randy Gibson were always up for Moot court.
Ron Morris…that voice in my ear saying “be conservative, be conservative, be conservative!”
Marie Durina, who I met the same day as I did Linton, while she was still a trainee herself. Since then she has been available for conversations on any number of FDE subjects. Thanks, Marie, for holding my hand along the way.

Most of all, I am thankful for the wonderful support and encouragement I received from my dear husband, Allen. He managed to suffer through my absence during numerous conferences, out of state training seminars and late nights. He was my best source of reassurance when the going got rough and has been my cheerleader along every step of the journey.

Linda L Mitchell, D-ABFDE

Forensics in the Age of Electronics: Can your texts identify you like handwriting does?


When you think of the forensic world, what is the first thing that comes to your mind (after CSI, of course)?

Well, chances are you think of the past. After all, forensic specialists gather and examine information about the past. More importantly, perhaps, it is the study of how much someone leaves behind, floating  in the ether of time – the fingerprints we can’t see or the handwriting impressions on a blank piece of paper. Every man, woman and child leave their “mark” behind – a mark that is changing with time.

Over the past fifty years, the forensic world has grown in leaps and bounds, due to major discoveries in science like DNA, or new technology that helps us analyze evidence like fingerprints and trace evidence. The future of the forensic world is subject to our imagination; and, for some, the online world is where the imagination leads.  Have you noticed the word, ‘cyber’ is already being attached to a number of criminal activities? Do we really know what that means exactly?

Despite crimes being committed in digital space and crossing over wires and fiber optics, signatures are still being signed – marks are being left behind in some form. The forensic world is constantly evolving, yet the requirements of a forensic expert remain the same; use whatever proven protocol is available in a scientific and objective manner to identify the perpetrator of wrong-doing.

Take, for instance, online chat.  Just as fingerprints are distinct to each person you meet, so are online chat habits. People use different phrases and words and change the way they write when they are chatting online, and those changes actually give us great insight into who is the person. In this category is where the Forensic Linguistics Expert shines. Handwriting identification is similar in that the physical movement of the writer is habitual and the combination of movements can be distinctly identifiable.

This type of online “cyber” forensics has scientists noting whether or not the words are spelled out or shortened, how emoticons are used and also logging word usage as a whole. This may not seem like much to go on, but, similar to forensic handwriting analysis, it’s the accumulation of  little details that matter most.

The digital age is upon us. Now we see less and less young adults who are capable of cursive writing, which is the style that is most often used to identify a writer. There is a strong influx of hand printing used among younger writers and men. It is incumbent on the forensic document scientific community to confirm that the same methods used for cursive, also apply to hand printing. A study is currently under way to do just that. Meanwhile, other forensic specialists are performing studies to see if it is possible to determine identity traits with texts and instant message chat.

Case in point is a recent court case brought by the prosecutor who engaged a “cyber” expert to opine as to the identity of a sex offender by his online chat habits. While cases like this will likely come under close scrutiny for their acceptability in court, the practice will likely lead to more study into the forensic application of online text or chat log analysis.

In short, all of us leave our marks on the world – that much is certain; what marks they are and how they can be analyzed is the future of forensics.  What do you think?




Are We Witnessing the Death of Handwriting?

examining handwritingHandwriting, whether in cursive or print, has long been one of the oldest forms of communication between people. The incredible rise of technology in recent years that allows for digital forms of communication has greatly reduced the amount of people who rely on handwritten communication. Some have even wondered if e-mail and texting will spell the end of writing by hand for good.

Written messages must be written legibly so that others can understand them. However, a recent survey by CNN found that 33 percent, or one-third, of all respondents had trouble reading their own handwriting. Obviously, this poses problems for the use of handwritten messages to convey important information.

Technology has given us many reasons to get away from traditional letters and postcards. Texts can be passed directly between users and reach their destination much more quickly. Spell-check software automatically corrects misspellings, it doesn’t do anything to teach users how to spell a word correctly. Users often aren’t even aware when they’ve misspelled a word if they don’t see a spell-check notification.

One British printing and mailing company, Docmail, conducted a study to determine just how often people used handwriting to correspond with others. Not only had one-third of participants gone six months without handwriting one letter, most had digital calendars and other personal assistants, further cutting down the amount of handwriting practice they can get.

Handwriting is a lesser used art nowadays, but is still of utmost importance to forensic professionals. Written criminal evidence can be examined and identified as the handwriting of a specific person. But forensic document specialists should also know how to spot forged typed documents. Call Linda Mitchell at the Forensic QDE Lab if you need handwritten or typed documents examined by a forensic specialist.


*Image courtesy of alfio scisetti


Five Ways to Get the Best from Your Handwriting Expert

1.  Ask as many questions as you can.

If this is your first experience with a Forensic Document Examiner, it is likely you will have loads of questions. Most experts are glad to answer your questions to help you understand just what it is we do. It is also important to understand what we do not (or should not or cannot) do.

If, for instance, you have a signature on a document that you would like to have authenticated, but all you have is a copy – a poor one at that – your expert will probably not be able to provide you with a definitive identification of the author. That does not mean that a qualified opinion wouldn’t be possible. The point being, the results of an examination are often limited by the quality or quantity of the evidence being examined.  Knowing this going in, you can avoid possible disappointment later.

2.  Be very clear about your objective.

Once you have had a chance to consult with your Handwriting Expert, he or she will want to know exactly which documents are in question and why.  Be clear in your mind which of the documents you present are actually genuine and known to you to be the authentic writing of the person of interest and which are the documents that contain writing that could be in question. Changing your mind in the middle of an examination can cost you valuable time and money. Discovering that you, the client, have not done your homework is disruptive to an examination, but definitely should not happen while the expert is testifying!

3.  Prepare all of your evidence and deliver it at once if possible.

As you may have discovered, hiring an expert is a bit pricey. If you are looking for ways to keep costs down, I recommend that you gather all the documents you can find that are requested by your expert and deliver them in advance of the examination. Once the examination begins, the Document Examiner will be considering all of the evidence individually and as a body. Talk to your expert about this. If documents “dribble” in, your expert may want to wait until you have found everything you can.

Sometimes, he or she will determine that there is not enough information within the samples already delivered and request additional samples. When you think you have found everything there is to find, it may not have occurred to you to look in the old file cabinet in the garage or a forgotten box of mementos in the attic. Finding more documents may seem like a daunting task, but your expert knows what to look for to provide the most productive results possible. If more documents are requested, do your best to comply.

4.  Allow the Document Examiner the time required to arrive at an opinion.

Usually your expert will let you know how much time is required to examine your case. The time required may be due to his or her schedule or to the complexity of your case. Find out what is necessary and try not to rush the expert. Though the actual billable time spent on your evidence seems small, the expert is usually working on more than one case at a time. In fact, some experts prefer to analyze the materials in stages or segments of time. This allows for the circumspection necessary for an accurate level of confidence in the opinion.

5.  Understand the opinion and how it may affect your case.

You notice that the report says something like, “the K1 writer probably wrote the Q1 signature.” You are wondering why your expert couldn’t just say “Yea or Nay”.  You’re thinking that you paid all that money for a “probably”?

For many attorneys, the term “probably” can be interpreted in court lingo to mean “more likely than not” which is the level of confidence required in civil trials. (A higher level of confidence is required for criminal court.)

Remember that your Handwriting Expert should be committed to providing an objective opinion based on an accurate evaluation of the evidence. Handwriting Experts must consider any shortcomings in the evidence provided and qualify their opinion based on the shortfall of evidence even though it may seem obvious to you that John Smith did not write his name on the document in question.


Expert Handwriting Comparisons

There is no magic to comparing the handwriting of a questioned document with samples of another writer. Nor are handwriting experts necessarily gifted with some supernatural ability to identify the signatures of others. What a handwriting expert does have is a peculiar interest in the fine details of handwriting and many hours of training and experience in observing the characteristics of hundreds (make that, thousands) of writers. To become an expert, a document examiner must have the ability to differentiate the  individualizing characteristics from “run-of-the-mill” features referred to as class characteristics found in many people’s handwriting.  When considered in combination, an adequate number of these characteristics can serve as an identifying “fingerprint” of a given writer. The only “trick” is that the document examiner must have the skill to know what is adequate for such an identification.

The process of preparing the evidence for examination is rather straightforward and somewhat rudimentary. Many examiners prefer to place the signatures side-by-side, comparing the signature in question with those known to be genuine. Most commonly, each document is scanned, the image is cropped to eliminate extraneous printing or writing and the resulting signatures are “pasted” onto a sheet – Questioned signature(s) on one side, Known signatures on the other. Sometimes, preparing the documents for analysis takes longer than the analysis itself, partly because the similarities and differences become more recognizable when the writing is isolated from the rest of the page.

Then the comparison begins. A global inspection comes first. The questioned signatures are compared to one another as are the known signatures. Discrepancies and commonalities are noted. Once the examiner has a general impression of the writing, the details of the writing are inspected. There are up to 40 separate features that can be used for identifying a writer, but not all of these are considered every time. Some writers have such unusual features, very few are necessary to identify the writer, while others require in-depth, stroke-by-stroke analysis to find enough features to formulate an opinion.

After all of these steps, the examiner must determine how much weight to attribute to the characteristics he or she has noted. Using a combination of training, experience and personal skill, a hypothesis is gradually formed and tested until the examiner arrives at an opinion with a chosen level of confidence. This is usually not an overnight process, either. Most examiners prefer to revisit their evidence more than once on different days – looking at the information with fresh eyes. What is perhaps a two to four-hour examination is accomplished in a series of short visits over two or more days.

Handwriting comparisons are performed to identify a writer, to confirm the authenticity of a writing or to eliminate a writer as the author of a given document. If you have a document with handwriting in question and send it to a be analyzed, don’t expect magic, but do expect attention to detail, careful circumspection and an unbiased opinion from your forensic document examiner.

(This article is a description of an examination of photocopies, not original “wet” ink handwriting)