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Questioned Documents: An Important Evidence in Criminal Investigation

Questioned documents cases
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Questioned documents are defined as any document whose origin or source comes into question in the course of investigation.

Questioned Document Examination (In...

Questioned document examination is one of the integral parts of forensic examination where scientific pattern based comparisons of the documents are conducted. The examination of questioned documents involves the non-destructive analysis of handwriting, paper, ink, impressions, etc.

Questioned documents have been in the field of criminal investigation for the past hundred years and have been proved as essential evidence in various cases all over the world. The number of cases where questioned document examination played a crucial role is quite vast and beyond this article.

Therefore, the top 5 most famous cases of Questioned Documents of the United States of America (USA) have been discussed in this context.

Top 5 Questioned Documents Cases

1. Howland Will Forgery Trial

It was the famous case of 1868 tried in US court which involved America’s richest  business woman Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Howland Robinson. Hetty contested the validity of the will of her aunt, Sylvia Ann Howland.

According to the will of Sylvia Howland half of her estate worth of 2 million US dollars(at present 35,404,000 US dollars) was to be given to various charities and entities, while the other half will be entrusted to Robinson.

Hetty challenged the will claiming that there was an earlier will which left the entire estate to her (Hetty) and also included a clause invalidating any subsequent wills. However the verdict was decided against Hetty after the court stated that the clause invalidating future wills and Sylvia’s signature to it were forged.

2. Lindberg Kidnapping Case

This was a case of the kidnapping of a 20 months old boy named Charles Augustus Lindberg Jr., son of aviators Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. He was abducted from his crib in the upper floor of the Lindberghs’ home, Highfields, in East Amwell, New Jersey, United States, on March 1, 1932.

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A handwritten note was found stuck on a wall near the window, which demanded a ransom of 50,000 US Dollars for the safe return of the child. The parents started the negotiation with the kidnapper and also informed the FBI at the same time. Unfortunately, on 12 May 1932, the corpse of the child was found by the roadside which was identified by a truck driver.

Firstly the investigator assumed that the kidnapping must have been done by someone known but it was not proved. The investigators then carefully examined the ladder which was used to climb to the room. It was found that the ladder was not well furnished but was made roughly by a carpenter. Also, the language used in the ransom letter concluded that the writer must be a German or someone who had lived in the USA for a short duration.

Then finally after thorough investigation a German immigrant Carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the crime in September 1934. After many trials, at last on 13 February 1935, he was found guilty of kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindberg and sentenced to death. Despite his conviction, he continued to profess his innocence but all his appeals failed and he was finally electrocuted on an electric chair in New Jersey State Prison on April 3, 1936.

3. Killian Document Controversy

Killian documents controversy or Memogate or Rathergate was one of the most talked about political controversies of the USA. The case included six documents that contained false allegations about President W. Bush’s service in the Texas’ Air National Guard in 1972-73, allegedly typed in 1973.

4 of these documents were aired in a ‘60 Minutes II’ broadcast, by the journalist Dan Rather in the CBS news channel, just 2 months before the presidential elections of 2004. However, later the CBS failed to authenticate the documents.

Several typewriter and typographic experts also concluded that the documents were forged. CBS producer Mary Mapes confirmed that the documents were faxed to her by Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who was a former officer in the Texas Army National Guard.

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Burkett claimed that Bush’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian wrote them, which included criticisms of Bush’s service in the Guard during the 1970s. He also claimed that he burned all the original documents after faxing the copies.

No forensic document examiners or typography experts have authenticated the documents, and this may not be technically possible without the original documents. The authenticity was criticized on the internet and the scandal quickly spread all over the mass media.

CBS fired producer Mapes, requested resignations from several senior news executives, and apologized to viewers by saying only that there were “substantial questions regarding the authenticity of the Killian documents“.

4. Mark Hoffman Case

Mark William Hoffman is regarded as one of the most renowned forgers in the history of the USA. He is native to America and convicted to counterfeiting, forgery and murder. He came into note because of his famous forgery where he created the documents regarding history of the Latter Day Saint Movement.

There is no account of the number of documents forged by Hofmann. Some of the most famous forgeries done by him were Anthon Transcript forgery, Joseph Smith III blessing, Salamander letter and others that he translated from the Book of Mormon.

He used to sell those forged documents to the people at high costs and earned a lot of money. But then in the 1980s his scheme began to unravel and baffled him. He started to kill the people to spill out his grudges.

He constructed bombs in Salt Lake City, Utah to murder three people. Two bombs exploded on 15 October 1985, out of which the first one killed the document collector Steven Christensen and the second one killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen’s former employer and the third bomb bombarded in his own car on the same day.

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Hoffman was found injured in that blast and also suspected by the police for other previous bombing. Finally in 1987 he was convicted to two counts of second-degree murder, one count of theft by deception and one count of fraud.

5. Melvin Dummar Case

It is also referred to as ‘The Mormon Will’ case. This was the famous forgery case that involved one of the business tycoon Howard Hughes and his will. Melvin Earl Dummar, a Utah man claimed that he had saved Hughes in the Nevada Desert in 1967 and had been awarded with a part (150 million US dollars) of Hughe’s vast estate.

This resulted in a lot of battles in the courtroom and in 1978 a Las Vegas jury determined that the will leaving Dummar 156 million US dollars was a forgery.

In 2005 a reinvestigation was conducted by the FBI where the retired FBI agent Gary Magnesen claimed to have found new evidence supporting Dummar’s story and documented his findings in his 2005 book, “The Investigation: A Former FBI Agent Uncovers the Truth Behind Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar, and the Most Contested Will in American History”.

Then in 2006, Dummar filed a suit against William Lummis, the primary beneficiary of the Hughes estate, and Frank Gay, the former chief operating officer of a number of Hughes entities, in the United States court, Utah.

He claimed that the two had conspired to defraud him out of his rightful share of the Hughes estate by presenting perjured testimony and concealing evidence in the 1978 trial. However in 2007, District Judge Bruce Sterling Jenkins dismissed Dummar’s lawsuit, stating that his claims had been “fully and fairly litigated” in Las Vegas in 1978 when a jury decided the purported will was invalid.

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