Document examination is a branch of Forensic science which deals with the examination of documents which are disputed in the court of law. Forensic Document examiners are assigned the duty to apply different techniques and methods to check the authenticity of the questioned document.
The field of Document examination is very wide and important as the criminals come up with new ideas to commit document-related crimes. The crime rate has gone up and the lack of research in this field has led to the successful violation of rules in these crimes.
A document can be defined as anything which can record the information or an event to save it for later. Usually, documents are written but they also include pictures, sounds, paintings, etc. using any instrument such as a pen, paper, stone, colour, ink, wood, etc.
Examples of a document are usually done in white-collar crimes include diaries, identification documents, records, painting (on paper, wall, door, floor, etc.), symbols, newspapers, wills, financial documents, etc.
Legal definitions of a Document
According to the Article 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 “The term ‘Document’ means any matter expressed or described upon any substance by means of letters, figures or marks, or by more than one of those means, intended to be used, or which may be used, for the purpose of recording that matter“.
According to section 29 of IPC, “The word document denotes any matter expressed or described upon any substance by means of letters, figures or marks, or by more than one of those means, intended to be used, or which may be used, as evidence of that matter.”
A questioned document is any signature, handwriting, symbol, typewriting, painting, etc. whose credibility is in question in a court of law. Questioned documents include letters, cheques, driver license, passbooks, passport, wills, suicide notes, threatening letters, marks/symbols on walls, windows, doors, etc.
These types of documents are found in many different cases and some of them are:
- Kidnapping, Suicide
- Serial killing
- Gambling, lottery games
- White Collar crimes
- Arson (Burnt or damaged documents)
- Records, Wills, Orders by high authorities
- Historical documents
History of Questioned Document examination
Document examination has been in use for decades now for disputed documents in the court of law. The history of questioned documents dates back to 3rd century A.D. However, scientific document examination started around the 18th century.
From the start of civilization, Forgeries had been in use for violation of laws to change the seals, handwriting, preparing official documents, signatures, etc.
The first case reported regarding the document examination was in the 3rd century. During that time, Imperial Rome was famous for forgers. Titus and Anthony were the famous and most skilled forgers of that time known for forging all kinds of documents.
There was a need to stop forgeries at that time and Roman Law mandated that the procedures must be followed to detect forgeries in documents and the authenticity of documents.
In the 6th century (around 539 AD), Justinian code was established by a Roman emperor Justinian in which the guidelines for document examination were mandated. The Justinian code made sure that a judge could ask a person with special skills to examine the disputed documents and give testimony regarding the authenticity of a document.
During that time the experts were considered as master writers in France. every country started to follow to detect forgeries and other document related crimes.
Photographers also considered themselves as handwriting experts during the 1890s after the invention of photography because they had the advantage of analyzing handwriting characteristics using cameras by enlarging the alphabets for comparison.
In a famous case, Alphonse Bertillon (inventor of Anthropometry) was also a photographer and using the technology accused an army person of forgery which was later challenged by the experts from the US and England.
After the challenge, the charges against the army officer were exonerated by the courts.
During the 1890s handwriting examination was common and two experts Hagen and Frazer published a book on disputed documents.
During the 1900s, Albert Sherman Osborn wrote many articles related to typewriting identification in 1901 before publishing a book titled “Questioned Documents”.
With some modifications in the first edition of the book, he published a new edition of the book in 1929 which set a base for the examination of questioned documents as the books are still in use.
Albert S. Osborn was named as the father of questioned documents due to his contribution to the field of questioned documents.
His other publications included The problem of proof (1922), The mind of the Juror (1937) and Questioned document problems (1944).
In 1942, ASQDE (American society of Questioned document examination) was established with the main focus of education and research in the field of questioned document examination.
ASQDE is still working and continuously contributing to the field of document examination.
Document examination laboratory in India
During the British rule, they required a document examiner to decipher the secret writings regarding independence and therefore, Mr CR. Hardless was appointed to the post of Government handwriting expert of Bengal in 1904.
However, in 1906 the laboratory was shifted to Shimla under the control of director CID where a post for handwriting experts of India was appointed.
Mr CR. Hardless was appointed to this post and was replaced soon by F. Brewster as Government examiner of questioned documents (GEQD).
In India, there are 3 designated GEQD in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Shimla which were merged in 1910 under Central Forensic science laboratories in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chandigarh. At present, there is no GEQD present in India.
Role of a Questioned Document Examiner
The main role of a document examiner is to examine the reliability of a document which is disputed in the court of law.
Document examiner uses their experience and skills to determine the authenticity of a document. A document can be of any type i.e., handwritten or printed.
The abilities of a document examiner go far beyond verifying signatures and comparison of handwriting. It also includes detecting any fraud in any document, revealing information from secret writing or burned documents.
A document examiner analyses different aspects of a document to reach a specific conclusion.
Other than the typing and handwriting they analyse the age of the ink, paper, the composition of ink to check whether they were written on the same date by the same person or typed in the same machine at the same time or not.
Any dissimilarity in the complete document may lead them to suspicion regarding the authenticity of a document.
Examination of different documents done by a questioned document examiner
- Comparison of handwriting/signatures
- Examination of printers, typewriters, photocopy and fax machines
- Analysis of burnt and torn/damaged documents
- Stamps, seals, etc.
- Analysis of ink and paper
- Identifying secret writing
- Identifying erasures, alterations, additions, indentation, etc.
A document concludes the result and presents himself as an expert witness in document-related documents to verify how the disputed document is authentic and why it is not.
Case study of document examination
Lindbergh case study is the most important case study as it is also known as the case of the century. Charles Lindbergh was a famous person in the US and was living happily until March 1, 1932, when his 20-month baby was kidnapped.
The baby was sleeping tight in his room on the second floor at his home when his nurse discovered him missing from his room.
It was found that the baby was kidnapped and the kidnapper used a wooden stair was used to climb on to the 2nd floor by the kidnapper.
The kidnapper left a note for the ransom of the baby which was $50,000. The Lindbergh family was ready to pay anything but it required time to collect such a huge amount at that time.
Dr John Condon came in between to be the negotiator between the Lindbergh family and the kidnapper and met in a cemetery to discuss the ransom money. They used different names to meet and kidnapper met Condon by the name of John.
Several meetings took place over the next few weeks between them and after 1 month Condon paid him the ransom money of $50,000 and left a note of the whereabouts of the child.
The money was mostly in gold certificates belonging to Lindbergh. The note said the baby is in a boat named Nellie just off the coast at Massachusetts but the boat was never found.
After 2 months on 12 May 1932, the baby was found half-buried about 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh house. From the postmortem examination, it was found that the baby was killed by a blow in the head during or after the kidnapping.
After the body was found the whole country’s attention was to find the killer of the baby. The gold certificates on the ransom money had a serial number which was distributed in all banks to get the killer when he shows up with the money.
However, the killer never came until 2 and a half years later a $10 bill was discovered and was traced back to a gas station which was given by a person for filling gas in the car.
The person who collected the gold certificate money suspected the money and had noted the license plate number of the vehicle.
This led police to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant. The police soon reached his home and searched where they found $14,000 of the ransom money.
But, Hauptmann denied and said that the money was given to him by his friend to keep it safe.
The police didn’t buy his statement and started looking for evidence to prove him a culprit. Police found out that Hauptmann was a carpenter and had identical wood as found in the ladder in crime scene who must have used it to reach onto the second floor.
The second evidence involved the gold certificates found at his house and the third evidence was the ransom note in which the handwriting matched with the standards handwriting samples found at his house.
The jury found him guilty and concluded a death sentence to Bruno Richard Hauptmann by electric chair.
This case led to an amendment in the law which stated that the kidnappers can be pursued in the US even today and the law is known as the “Lindbergh Law”.