A handwriting expert witness is critical in cases where the authenticity of a signature, or other handwriting, on a document is challenged. Experts opine on such issues as beneficiary changes on insurance policies, falsified company records, disputed delivery records and promissory notes.
Cases where the authenticity of a document’s handwriting is at issue may involve an array of documents, including disputed wills, contracts, checks, insurance documents, suicide notes, autographs, graffiti, account ledgers, hate mail, bomb and death threats, deeds, harassment letters, and medical records.
Who is a Handwriting Expert Witness?
A handwriting expert witness is a forensic document examiner trained in handwriting / forgery analysis, a scientific process which is used to determine whether a piece of writing was produced by a particular person. Many studied forensic sceience at the undergraduate, if not graduate level. Recently, bachelor and master degree programs have offered degrees and certification in forensic science. Graduates gain experience under experienced supervisors in forensics laboratories, and even gain exposure to mock cross-examinations. Handwriting experts are often affiliated with the American Academy of Forensic Science, the American Board of Forensic Examiners, and the National Association of Document Examiners.
The reliability of handwriting analysis is evolving and some state and district courts have found the process unreliable under federal or state rules of evidence. There has been no ruling on this issue from the Supreme Court. However, all six of the circuit courts that ruled on the issue of admissibility of handwriting expert witness testimony have allowed the testimony on the premise that each person’s handwriting is unique. Identifying characteristics can include letter formation, pen lifts, letter slants, full or closed loops, shading, and pressure. Those courts found the methodologies of handwriting analysis to be reasonably reliable under FRE 702.
See United States v. Prime, 431 F.3d 1147, 1153-54 (9th Cir. 2005); United States v. Crisp, 324 F.3d 261, 269–70 (4th Cir. 2003); United States v. Mooney, 315 F.3d 54, 63 (1st Cir. 2002); United States v. Jolivet, 224 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2000); United States v. Paul, 175 F.3d 906, 911 (11th Cir. 1999); United States v. Jones, 107 F.3d 1147, 1161 (6th Cir. 1997); United States v. Velasquez, 64 F.3d 844, 850–52 (3d Cir. 1995).
Benefits of Hiring a Handwriting Expert Witness
A handwriting expert witness can bolster an attorney’s case theory and ultimately the case decision. Their testimony is relevant in cases dealing with issues such as:
- Anonymous writings or documents
- Disputed signatures
- Document authentication
- Handwriting comparison
- Indented writings/marks on paper
- Ink and paper age
- Integrity of business or medical records
- Light frequencies reflected by ink and paper
- Questioned documents
- Records alteration analysis
- Signature verification
- Writer/printer identification
- Writing instruments
A handwriting expert(1) compares, analyzes, and evaluates the writings of known and unknown authorship to determine whether the writings have the same author; (2) opines on the similarities and differences in the writing styles; and (3) describes the methodologies used to examine the document to the trier of fact.
To determine the true author of a writing sample, the expert must attain several verified samples of their writing. These samples should be recent; writings produced within several months of the questioned document are ideal. Once the expert has access to both the questioned and verified writings, they break them down to observable characteristics and analyze the stylistic similarities and differences to determine whether they were produced by the same author.
To draw conclusions about the writing’s origins, experts analyze ink and paper ages, watermark presence, erasure marks, ink style, and writing instruments, as well as other factors. They link the unknown document to an exemplar document, or rule out the exemplar’s author as a possible writer of the questioned document. Handwriting analysis requires a highly specialized and knowledgeable handwriting expert witness who can analyze and determine the presence of similarities and differences in the compared documents’ penmanship, and effectively communicate the technical elements to a judge or jury.
Entities that would benefit from working with a handwriting expert include:
- Convalescence Centers
- Credit Unions
- Financial Companies
- Insurance Professionals
- Investigative Agencies
- Medical Centers
- Police Departments
- Rehab Centers
A handwriting expert witness helped the State of Maryland convict the Petitioner, Anthony Miller, on two counts of second degree murder. However, Miller challenged his conviction, arguing that the lower court improperly admitted the evidence of the State’s handwriting expert, a Baltimore City Police Department questioned document expert.
The handwriting expert opined that the defendant might have written the victim’s signature on a relevant questioned document and that, based on his comparison to an exemplar, the handwriting on the questioned document did not match the victim’s handwriting. The document in question was an authorization to charge form, which Petitioner had sent to him by a travel agency he owed money to. The Petitioner returned the form to them with victim’s signature on it, indicating that the victim’s account should be charged for the amount owed to the agency by Petitioner. It was dated the day before the victim was killed, but was not sent to the agency until the day after the victim’s death.
Comparing the signature on the form to verified exemplars of the victim’s and defendant’s handwriting, the expert stated that it did not resemble the victim’s writing but did resemble the defendant’s. The expert witness explained his process:
“In doing a handwriting comparison, handwriting is a mental and muscular coordinated process. It’s a habit and it’s identifiable because it’s a habit, and you repeat the characteristics. I’m looking for these repetitive characteristics that are identified to a particular individuals writing.
The type of characteristics I’m looking for are, like, the size of the writing; the spacing between the letters; the pen movements; underhand connecting strokes; overhand connecting strokes; proportion of the letters, how tall the “T” is to an “A” or maybe how high up on the cross bar the “T” is compared to the staff of the “T”; or how big one letter is compared to another letter. I’m also looking for subtle pen movements.
So, I first looked at the questioned document to see what I thought was important for identification purposes. After I looked and saw what I thought was important on the questioned document, I then went to the index cards and I wanted to see what characteristics were presenting in the index cards and what kind of results I could have, having looked at both the questioned document and compared it to the known document and that is how I come to a conclusion… Due to unexplained variations in the writing, in the questioned writing of Q-1, there was not a basis for identifying Miller as the writer of this document. However, there are characteristics of Miller [that] appear in the document which prevents his elimination as a suspect in this case… I didn’t know if this was a deliberate attempt, either in this writing or in this writing, to change the natural writing habit because these were appearing in combination. I had characteristics in common. I had characteristics unexplained. I didn’t come to a definitive conclusion but there were characteristics here, that I could not ignore, in common between the two.” See pages 6-7 of the opinion.
Miller argued that such testimony must be excluded. As the expert couldn’t say for certain that the Petitioner forged the victim’s signature on the form, and couldn’t not say that he didn’t falsify it. Miller claimed that the testimony was unfairly prejudicial. The judge said that the defense’s cross-examination of the expert witness may be used to point to the scope and limitations of his testimony.
The Court of Appeals relied on numerous case law on handwriting expert witness testimony, which stated that the testimony of qualified experts, regardless of the level of certainty as to the conclusions drawn from the analysis, was helpful in assisting the jury in its deliberation of the relevance of the appearance of the writing in the questioned document and the exemplars. Providing the jurors with the methodology used in the comparisons of handwriting allows them to apply the principles to the facts of the case in order to reach their own conclusion regarding the authorship of the writing. Finding that Circuit Court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert witness testimony, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower courts’ holding.