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Book Review - Forensic Science Communications - July 2007

Book Review - Forensic Science Communications - July 2007

July 2007 - Volume 9 - Number 3

Book Review

Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, Third Edition

David Ellen
CRC Press-Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton, Florida, 2006
ISBN 0-8493-3925-1

Reviewed by
Danielle P. Seiger

Document Examiner
Questioned Documents Unit
FBI Laboratory
Quantico, Virginia

In the introduction to the third edition of The Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, author David Ellen states that one of the objectives of this book is to provide an outline of the “principles, methods, and techniques employed in forensic document examination” for lawyers, police officers, and other investigators, as well as to “serve as a guide to those entering the profession.” Ellen acknowledges that the book is not detailed enough to be used as a “textbook for document examiners” but has succeeded in providing a good reference for those interested in learning about the field of forensic document examination.

Ellen’s focus is not simply on the subject of the examination of handwriting, although the coverage of this topic is greater than any other because of its complexity and the frequency with which it is examined by the forensic document examiner. The examination of typewriting, a 19th-century technology that is still encountered by the 21st-century document examiner, is covered, along with the 20th-century technologies of photocopiers, ink-jet printers, and facsimile machines. Other topics that are covered include the examination of paper; pencils and inks; alterations to documents; and indented impressions, and while the discussions of these topics are brief, they do demonstrate that the field of questioned documents is more than just handwriting examination.

The treatment of handwriting examination covers four chapters and includes a discussion about expressing conclusions that will prove useful to the document examiner as well as the attorney who is presenting this type of testimony in court. An entire chapter is devoted to the subject of collecting handwriting samples. Ellen states on page 85 that “the proper taking of samples is one of the most important facets of an inquiry involving handwriting, and it is well worth the attention needed to do it properly.” This is valuable advice for the police officer and the investigator, who often are the ones collecting handwriting samples, but also for the document examiner, who knows that the ability to conduct a complete and thorough examination depends on having adequate samples to compare.

The third edition, however, falls short of the mark in meeting another of Ellen’s stated objectives. Ellen states in the preface of this edition that “since the first edition of The Scientific Examination of Documents was published in 1989, and the second edition in 1997, there have been some changes in the field of forensic document examination due to advances both in the introduction or wider use of technology in office machinery and in the techniques available to the examiner. Most of these are referred to in this edition . . . .” In fact, very little new technical material or references appear in the third edition, and the new material that does amounts to only a few short sentences or paragraphs.

One of the most glaring omissions is the lack of any discussion of the challenges handwriting examination has faced in terms of its reliability. While Ellen has spent his career as a document examiner in the United Kingdom where the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals does not apply, the issue of the reliability of handwriting examination testimony is one that is being faced and addressed by forensic document examiners around the world. One brief mention is made on page 77 that it is “important that the competency of forensic document examiners is adequate and their methods reliable,” but no further discussion on this important topic is offered. References are given for papers published by Dr. Moshe Kam and Dr. Bryan Found on the expertise of forensic document examiners, but no reference is made anywhere in the book to the article published by Dr. Sargur Srihari on the individuality of handwriting.

Similarly, there is very little discussion on quality assurance as it affects forensic document examiners. Two paragraphs are devoted to this topic on page 77, but no mention is made of proficiency testing or accreditation of laboratories, two major aspects of any quality assurance program. Proficiency testing is required as an essential part of many laboratories’ quality assurance programs in order to regularly assess the competency of their practitioners, and laboratory accreditation is being sought and offered by organizations that adhere to international standards for quality control. These topics deserve further discussion, both for the attorney or investigator who may have the opportunity to choose which laboratory or expert is hired to conduct examinations, as well as for the document examiner who may be asked about these issues in court.

Some of the technical aspects of the book should have been updated but have not been. For example, in a discussion on maintaining comprehensive records of ink formulations to be used in resolving ink-dating questions, Ellen states on page 144 that “in the United States, the Laboratory of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the U.S. Treasury has built up such a collection of ink formulations.” In fact, the U.S. Secret Service Forensic Services Division Laboratory and the Internal Revenue Service National Forensic Laboratory jointly maintain this collection and have done so for many years. Moreover, in January 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms became the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and its law enforcement functions were transferred from the U.S. Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice (https://www.atf.gov/our-history).

Additionally, Ellen states on page 155 that “laser printing and other matrix methods produce jagged edges . . . only vertical and horizontal lines appear continuous, whereas diagonals are stepped.” While this may have been the case with early and low-quality laser and ink-jet printers, it is not necessarily the case today. With the widespread availability of inexpensive, high-quality laser and ink-jet printers, the document examiner is likely to encounter printing and graphics that are photo-quality and may be difficult to distinguish from other commercial printing processes.

Finally, there are some examinations and procedures that should be mentioned in this book but are not. For example, it is not uncommon for a document examiner to receive a document containing typewritten text and a single-strike, carbon-film ribbon with which to compare it. The ribbon can be transcribed, as discussed by Ellen on page 107, either visually or by using specially developed apparatuses, in order to locate the questioned text. However, Ellen does not go on to describe the examination that can be conducted of the fracture patterns and paper fiber impressions on the typewritten text and the ribbon that can associate the two items. This type of examination is commonly undertaken by forensic document examiners and is one that can provide conclusive evidence that a specific ribbon was used to prepare the questioned typewritten text.

These limitations aside, the book does give a good overview of the field of forensic document examination to attorneys, police officers and investigators, and document examiner trainees. The introductory section provides a useful discussion of the qualifications and training of a document examiner and may provide insight to the attorney or investigator as to how to evaluate the qualifications of an expert “when looking for the right person for the job.” Chapter 11, “Document Examination in Court,” offers a good discussion about presenting evidence in court in areas of forensic document examination other than handwriting. While this book does have its shortcomings and needs to be supplemented with other, more comprehensive readings, it does have its place in the library of the novice and the experienced examiner alike.