July 01, 2015

Forensic Handwriting Comparison Examination in the Courtroom

By Thomas W. Vastrick

Editor’s Note: A version of this article that includes endnotes is available from the author, who can be reached at vastrick@yahoo.com.

The issue of handwriting comparisons and forgery can be traced back to Roman law and the Code of Justinian, named for the ruler of the Eastern Empire beginning in 527. In his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, author Edward Gibbons notes about Justinian, “Under his reign, and by his care, the civil jurisprudence was digested in the immortal works of the Code, the Pandects, and the Institutes; the public reason of the Romans has been silently or studiously transfused into the domestic institutions of Europe; and the laws of Justinian still command the respect or obedience of independent nations.”

In the United States, handwriting comparison examinations have been accepted throughout the country. Under Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), court challenges were nearly nonexistent. Comprehensive treatises include Disputed Handwriting and the Determination of Genuine from Forged Signatures by William E. Hagan; Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations, with Numerous Causes Célébres by Daniel T. Ames; and Questioned Documents by Albert S. Osborn, which codified the scientific bases and methodological standards that are the backbones of today’s published standard methodologies.

With the ruling in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), new challenges arose. The Daubert guidelines transfer the onus of responsibility from the general scientific community (Frye) to the bench. The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that the Daubert bar was to be lower than that of Frye, making it easier (and faster) for newer technology to assist the triers of facts. However, that said, the U.S. Supreme Court also proffered guidelines from which judges could base their determinations. States that have adopted Daubert or a semblance of Daubert offer the same or similar guidelines.

Daubert Guidelines and Handwriting Comparisons

By taking a point-by-point approach to the Daubert guidelines, one can readily determine to what level forensic handwriting comparisons meet these guidelines.

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