Questioned Documents (World of Forensic Science)
In 1795 an Englishman named William Henry Ireland made an astonishing claim: that he had in his possession a manuscript of the play Kynge Leare, written in the hand of William Shakespeare himself. Such a discovery would have been invaluable, for no manuscript version of any of Shakespeare's plays is known to exist. A year later, however, Edward Malone was able to refute Ireland's improbable claim. In examining the manuscript he discovered twenty distinct paper watermarks among its leaves. Surely, Malone concluded, by the time he had written King Lear, Shakespeare would have been financially secure enough to be able to purchase a single batch of paper on which to write. The hodge-podge of different papers in the Ireland manuscript could be explained only as the work of a forger, who would likely raid a variety of old manuscripts for paper that would appear authentic, which is exactly what happened. In 1805, Ireland confessed that the manuscript was a forgery and that indeed he had obtained the paper by paying a bookseller to tear pages out of old manuscripts.
Malone was not the first questioned document examiner. In 1681, a French monk named Jean Mabillon (1632707) published De Re Diplomatica, which outlined a science he founded called diplomatics, or the analysis and verification of documents. Neither Mabillon nor Malone could have known that their efforts would eventually evolve into a branch of forensic science called questioned document examination (QDE). In Malone's day and later, a document examiner relied primarily on a good set of eyes, a microscope, and perhaps rudimentary chemical tests, but as new scientific tools emerged in the twentieth century, the field evolved into a complex specialty, demanding from its practitioners a high level of training and scientific knowledge.
To that end, in 1913, prominent questioned document examiner Albert S. Osborne invited a select number of colleagues from around the United States and Canada to join him to discuss problems and share research in QDE. For three decades Osborne, whose Questioned Documents (1910) and The Problem of Proof (1922) are regarded as classic books in the field, continued to meet informally with his colleagues until they formally founded the American Society of Questioned Documents Examiners, the field's leading professional organization, in 1942.
The term "questioned document" refers to any handwriting, typewriting, signature, or mark whose authenticity is in dispute. The types of documents that come under the examiner's purview include wills, contracts, letters, threatening letters, suicide notes, ransom notes, photos, lottery tickets, passports, voter registrations, drivers licenses, checks, tax returns, sales receipts, torn pieces of paper (such as matches torn from a matchbook), photocopies, carbon paper, charred paper, faxes, and the like. Although typically such documents are paper, examiners can be called on to examine any surface on which marks or writing appears, including, for example, walls, blackboards, or rubber stamps. In one noteworthy 1989 case, an apparent kidnapping and murder of a young girl, document examiners were called on to examine the plastic garbage bag in which the victim was found. Minute markings created by the heat-seal process used in manufacturing such bags enabled investigators to determine that the bag was manufactured on the same machine within seconds of other bags found in the parents' house, key evidence that resulted in the conviction of the girl's mother for murder.
Questioned document examination is a catch-all term for a field that encompasses a number of subspecialties, some of which overlap and any of which could play a role in the investigation of a crime. These include: (1) handwriting analysis, which attempts to show whether a questioned document came from the same hand as a document known to have been written by a particular person; (2) historical dating, which uses such techniques as carbon-14 dating to determine the age of a document; (3) typewriting analysis, which can trace the origin of a document to a make and model of typewriter and to an individual typewriter, a technique used in the investigation surrounding Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; (4) fraud investigation, which follows money trails and often relies on questioned document examination to demonstrate criminal intent; (5) paper and ink specialists, who use chemical and other methods to identify and date different types of paper, ink, water-marks, copy machines, printer cartridges, and the like; (6) forgery specialists, who use lighting, spectography equipment, and the like to determine whether a document or parts of a document have been erased, changed, or otherwise doctored; and (7) forensic stylistics, in which examiners look at linguistic style, grammar, and word choice, to determine whether a person was the likely author of a document. A new and evolving subspecialty is (8) computer crime investigation. This subspecialty uses some of the same techniques as typewriting analysis, examining ink cartridges, paper alignment, the alignment of images produced by printers, and fiber analysis of paper, as well as discovery of hidden, protected, temporary, or encrypted computer files, recovery of deleted files, analysis of unallocated space on a computer disk. Any of these subspecialties can merge under the general heading of questioned document examination.
While many state crime labs have questioned document units, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) often serves as the lead investigative agency or provides technical expertise because of its enormous resources. The FBI's reference files include information drawn from previous casework; thus, evidence such as a threatening note can be compared with other threatening notes that were part of earlier investigations. Examples include the Anonymous Letter File, the Bank Robbery Note File, and the National Fraudulent Check File. The agency's standard files are banks of legitimate documents used for comparison with questioned documents. Examples of these include the Checkwriter File, the National Motor Vehicle Certificate of Title File, the Office Equipment File, and the Watermark File. Watermarks have proven invaluable in many cases to show that a document could not have been written when it was alleged to have been written because the watermark did not exist at the time.
QDE has played a major role in the investigation of cases involving murder, forgery, counterfeiting, art crimes, gambling, kidnapping, organized crime, fraud, con games, theft, arson, burglary, serial murders, and sex crimes. The majority of cases in which the FBI Questioned Documents Unit (QDU) becomes involved require handwriting analysis. A typical FBI case arose in 1956, when a one-month-old child was kidnapped from his Long Island home. In the baby's carriage, investigators found a ransom note torn from a notebook purporting to be from the child's babysitter. FBI investigators called in to examine the note discovered distinguishing characteristics in the way the writer formed 16 letters of the alphabet. Of particular interest was the writer's lowercase m, which looked much like a sideways z. Investigators searched through nearly two million documents looking for similar writing until a Brooklyn, New York, probation officer found in his files documents written by a 31-year-old auto mechanic with the same peculiar m. After the FBI determined that the suspect was indeed the writer of the ransom note, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed in 1958.
Other questioned document cases have gained national and even international notoriety. In 1976, document examiners examined the infamous "Mormon Will," a holographic will allegedly written by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. According to the terms of the will, which had been mysteriously delivered to the offices of the Mormon Church, the bulk of the estate would pass to the church, but $156 million would go to one Melvin Dummar of Gabbs, Nevada. For months, Dummar claimed that he was a beneficiary under the will because a bum he had picked up in the desert and driven to Las Vegas was in fact Hughes, who was rewarding him for his kindness. Eventually, document examiners determined that the will was a hoax. In a similar case, in 1983, after Stern magazine in Germany began publishing portions of a set of diaries purportedly written by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, document examiners at Germany's Federal Archives, using ink and paper analysis, determined that the diaries were forgeries created by an artist and petty criminal named Konrad Kujau.
Questioned document examiners bring to bear a number of high-tech tools, many of which are manufactured by the UK firm Foster and Freeman. The firm's ESDA2 is named after the process it uses, called electrostatic detection, to render visible indented writing, such as writing that appears only as indentations on the next sheet of paper in a pad. The Video Spectral Comparator 5000 is used to examine questioned documents in the visible and near infrared regions of the light spectrum and can determine the presence of indented writing, make obscured writing visible, and differentiate inks and papers by their optical properties.
An invaluable tool has been the company's FORAM 685, which uses surface enhanced resonance Raman spectroscopy, or SERRS, to compare ink samples as small as 5 microns. Raman spectroscopy, developed in 1928 by Indian scientist Chandrasekhara Raman, has a wide variety of applications in law enforcement. It is used, for example, to identify explosive materials and to detect the presence of illicit drugs. Librarians and archeologists also use it to determine the chemical makeup of ink or paint found on ancient documents. Armed with this technology, a document examiner can measure the vibrational structure of molecules by exciting them with photons and examining the light the substance emits when its molecules "de-excite." More specifically, the technique directs light from a monochromatic laser down an optical microscope to a sample. The sample absorbs the light, but when it re-emits the light, the light is at a different wavelength. This re-emitted light is fed to a diffraction spectrometer, which records the spectrum and displays it on a computer. The light spectrum is a kind of fingerprint that identifies the substance from which it was emitted, for example, a specific kind of ink on a questioned document.
SEE ALSO Art forgery; Computer forensics; Document forgery; Handwriting analysis; Hitler Diaries; Howard Hughes' will; Spectroscopy; Typewriter and printer analysis.