Questioned document examination is a comparative pattern-based science like firearms, fingerprints and tire treads. The discipline covers wide ranging non-destructive examinations including handwriting, indented impressions, typewriting, printing processes, inks, and paper.

Defining Questioned Documents

A questioned document is any document where the source or origin of the document comes into question in the course of an investigation.

A questioned document examination compares the questioned document to a known standard determining areas of similarities or dissimilarities to record observations and render an opinion.

Numerous limitations can be observed within the examination including lack of sufficient writing, limited clarity, and the lack of contemporaneous and/or comparable material.

Application and Cases of Questioned Documents

Most documents are ordinary documents unless there is a question or dispute about the authenticity or origin of the document. The document may then be called into question. At this point, the document in dispute would need to be examined by a properly trained forensic document examiner to determine the facts about it.

Document cases are commonly found in cases such as wills, employment contracts, real estate agreements, medical and tax documents.

Application of Questioned Document Examination

Questioned documents is one of the oldest forensic science disciplines beginning nearly one hundred years ago. Several famous historical document cases brought much attention to the field of Questioned Documents including the Lindbergh and Weinberger kidnappings, and more recently, the Enron case.

Questioned document examinations are typically involved in forgery cases, anonymous letters, medical malpractice, and white collar crime.

Cases of Questioned Document Examinations

Enron Scandal

One such case involved Enron, an American energy company located in Houston, Texas. This case involved reporting inflated profits under audit while the company was using employees benefits to float the company. When the company filed for bankruptcy, hundreds of incriminating documents were destroyed in a cross-cut commercial shredding machine. Plastic bags full of these cross cut shred of paper were submitted to the FBI Laboratory to be reassembled. Using the printing on the documents as a guide, as well as the cut-pattern,the shreds were reassembled into whole pages that could be photographed and used as evidence at trial.

Lindbergh Kidnapping

Charles Lindbergh Jr., the 20 month old son of Charles Lindbergh, was found missing from his bed @ 10:00 p.m. on March 1, 1932. Near the bedroom window was a handwritten ransom note demanding $50,000 USD for the safe return of the child. The parents immediately started negotiations with the kidnapper and involving the FBI for the safe return of their son. On May 12, 1932, the body of Charles Lindbergh Jr. was found and the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann soon followed. The handwritten ransom note was compared to the known writing of Hauptmann identifying him as the writer. He was found guilty and electrocuted in 1936.

Questioned document

The Weinberger Kidnapping

Newborn Peter Weinberger was kidnapped from his front porch in Westbury, Long Island on July 4, 1956. His mother went to retrieve a clean diaper and by the time she returned, the child was missing. A handwritten ransom note was recovered demanding $2000 and promising the safe return of the child.

The Weinbergers with the help of police created a “dummy” package for the kidnapper but the kidnapper never showed. Handwriting experts reviewed over 2 million public records and found a suspect with similar handwriting characteristics as the questioned handwriting.

Mr. La Marca was identified and arrested after FDE’s completed their handwriting examination. The decomposing body of the child was found where La Marca had left him.

Questioned document 2

The Questioned Weinberger ransom letter signed “Your baby sitter”

Common Types of Questioned Documents

Some of the more common types of documents to be analyzed include signatures and handwriting on Wills, real estate documents, loan documents, company agreements, military records, family custody documents, and suicide notes.

Features On Questioned Documents Analyzed by Document Experts

Common features that document examiners analyze include handwriting, signatures, seals and stamps, ink, printing processes, computer generated documents, alterations and indentations.

Signature Examination

Signature examinations are a very common type of problem that FDE’s are requested to analyze. The signature is first analyzed to determine if it is original, or a copy. Does the signature appear natural? Characteristics of pen pressure, uniformity of execution and tapered beginning and ending strokes, indicate speed and that the signature was naturally prepared. Then, the signature is examined for characteristics such as letter construction, connecting strokes, size, slant, height relationships, etc and compared against contemporaneous known signatures. When examining the known signatures it’s important to analyze many samples to determine the range of natural variation exhibited by the writer. When comparing the characteristics between the questioned and known writing, the FDE can determine whether the characteristics of the questioned signature can be observed in the known documents. If no limitations exist, an opinion can be rendered regarding the probability of the signature being prepared g the writer of the known specimens.

Handwriting Examination

Handwriting examinations are another common request in forensic document examination. Handwriting can include cursive, mixed, and hand printed samples of writing. Questioned handwriting is analyzed to determine if it is natural writing, and if it is original. Tools such as a microscope and light sources can give an examiner a closer inspection of how the letter formations are constructed, pen pressure, stops and starts, pen lifts, etc. Should the writing be found to natural writing, it is examined for significant characteristics such as letter formations, height relationships, connecting strokes, execution, beginning and terminal strokes as well as features such as size, slant, speed, and spacing. The examiner then examines the known writing in the same method. With the known writing, it’s important to determine the range of variation and the internal consistency between the samples to make sure the known writing is all from one writer. Once the significant features of the questioned handwriting have been analyzed, they can be compared against the known samples to determine if there are similarities or differences. Should similarities be observed an opinion that the handwriting may have been prepared by the writer would be warranted. If disimilarities or differences are observed, a conclusion of the writer not having prepared the wiring would be given.

Seal and Stamps Examination

Seal and Stamp examinations requires an organized approach or important information can be lost or overlooked. The information gained by a FDE of the characteristics of the seal and stamp impression depend on: the material used to create the stamp (die material), whether the ink is water-based or oil-based, the size of the stamp, the type of paper, and the individual who is making the impression. There are two main types of defects: ones that occur in the manufacturing process and some that occur through the use or abuse of the stamp. The defect’s significance, depending on when it occurred in the manufacturing process, could be categorized as class or individual characteristics. Individual defects can also occur through the use and abuse of the stamp (i.e. accumulated ink, dirt and debris, and nicks and cuts).

Ink Examination

Non-destructive ink testing can be carried out by the Video Spectral Comparator (VSC) which contains a series of light sources (UV and IR) and filters reacting with the ink on the documents. Depending on the type of ink, the light may absorb, reflect, absorb and re-emit at a higher wavelength, or XXX. These characteristics can be observed with the VSC and record to determine if a different ink was used on a document or possibly to read writing underneath a portion of a document that has been overwritten (blacked out) with ink over the top of the questioned entries.

Examinations of Typewritten and machine-printed Documents

Typewritten documents can be examined to determine what type of ribbon was used, the horizontal spacing, and to classify the style of type. These indicators may help determine what type of machine could have prepared the questioned typewritten document. Further, the type is examined for alignment and any individual characteristics including transient or non-transient factors. Should a typebar have damage to a letter, that damaged image of that letter will appear on the typewritten documents and may serve to identity the specific typewriter that was used to prepare the questioned text.

Detection of Alterations, Deletions, and Erasures

Detection of alterations, deletions and erasures may be observed with specialized equipment, magnification, and various lighting techniques. An alteration can occur by modifying the existing document through physical, chemical, or mechanical means. An examiner will analyze the entire document for overwriting, multiple writing instruments, paper fiber disturbance, discoloration, use of different fonts, obscuring substances, smearing, irregular spacing, and different printing processes, etc. Measurements and an evaluation of the characteristics is conducted.

Detection of Indentation

Indented writing is impressions indented into the substrate and generally cannot be seen without apporpriate lighting. If indented impressions are observed, the paper is humidified and examined with an Electrostatic Detection Device (EDD). This device protects and negatively charges the document. Once the document has been charged, toner particles cascade over the protecting film covering the document. The positive particles adhere to the negatively charged impression (indentations) leaving an impression of the indentations on the plastic film. The film is cut, lifted, and transferred to a piece of paper where the indentations can be reviewed and preserved.

Method to Examine Questioned Documents

Forensic document examiners rely on standards or procedures that are agreed and used in their field. The Scientific Working Group of Forensic Document Examiners (SWGDOC) publishes standards that should be used by forensic document examiners. These standards are a set of procedures that are recognized in the field of questioned documents. In addition to these procedures, the FBI and other similar laboratories follow the ACE – V method. This acronym stands for the Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation, and Verification method.


The Analysis: The analysis begins by examining the document as a whole and then in a closer inspection using lighting, magnification and possibly other equipment as well. In the analysis phase, typical observations include side lighting, transparent, checking for watermarks, indentations, and noting any stamps, seals, erasures, overwriting, binders, folds, etc. at a macro level. A more detailed examination can then begin with corresponding notes for significant characteristics such as handwriting foramtions, line crossings, etc. The analysis phase is used to examine both the questioned and the known writing.


The Comparison: The comparison phase begin after the analysis phase and an FDE conducts a side-by-side comparison of the comparable portions of the bodies of writing. At this stage, the examiner can determine whether there are differences, similarities, or absent characteristics.


The Evaluation: The FDE evaluates the significance individually and in combination of the features described above. Also, the FDE must determine if there is a sufficient quantity of writing (of the questioned, known or both and continue with the comparison to the extent possible. If appropriate, requesting more known writing is also an option.


The Verification: Verifying the results of the examination is carried out by an experienced examiner who reviews the evidence independently and verifies the opinion reached. This process reviews the analysis, comparison and evaluation reached. In addition to the technical review, an administrative review is carried out to meet established criteria.

Who performs Questioned Document Examination (QDE)?

Questioned document examinations are performed by trained examiner that have satisfied the training standards and rigorous testing by their employers. Beware of examiners who are self-taught or have not completed a full time two-year training program through a reputable local, state or federal government program. If a document examination is needed by you, please do not hesitate to contact me so I can review your case and provide you with quality service and dependable results at Dekalbmiller.

The Standards

Standards provide procedures for examinations that should be followed by forensic document examiners. The particular methods employed in a given case will depend upon the nature of the material available for examination. The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) published forensic standards as well as the Scientific Working Group for forensic document examination (SWGDOC) and currently, the Organization for Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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