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Forensic Document Examination:
Guidelines for Evaluating Credentials

By: Vickie L. Willard

Tel: (216) 520-1520
Email: Ms. Willard

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It can be challenging to find the right expert when you need a handwriting expert/document examiner. Where do you look and what criteria do you use to determine which person has the expertise, competency and experience that will help you to solve your document problem? Experts advertise on various internet sites, in local and state bar journals, professional association directories, telephone directories, and many other places, but your best source is a referral from another satisfied attorney or one who has had the opportunity to cross examine the expert in trial. If you locate your expert through the sites where experts advertise, however, how do you evaluate their credentials?

Board certification and testing
It is important to begin your evaluation by determining whether the expert is board certified. Unlike some of the forensic specialities in which one enters the profession with a related degree, there are no academic degree programs for forensic document examination. Therefore, certification is becoming an increasingly important way of knowing whether the examiner has been tested and can meet the requirements of a certification board. If the examiner is certified, then ask questions about the certification requirements because not all certification programs are created equal.

It is important to ask whether the certification test was developed to meet the national standards of reliability and validity. While some certification tests are developed by a task group of experts working with professionals in the field of test development in order to meet these standards, others are developed in-house by a committee from within the organization. This information is important when distinguishing between two certification programs. Preferably, the board should retain a professional testing agency for administration, proctoring and grading of the tests.

How are the tests administered? Proctoring is, of course, the only way to guarantee that the applicant-test taker answered all of the questions and performed all of the performance exercises without assistance. This is an important issue because some boards mail tests to the applicant's home or place of work. Unproctored settings make it possible to consult books, discuss questions with a colleague, or seek advice on examination procedures´┐Żif the test taker is so inclined. Unproctored tests can also compromise the security of the test because there is nothing to prevent another individual from viewing the test if it is left unattended for a short period of time, or to prevent the test-taker from making a copy. Proctoring can easily be accomplished by administering the test through a professional testing agency or at a university testing center.

What are the components of the test? One organization, for example, does not test on the knowledge, skills, and abilities related to document examination, but instead offers a generic certification of "Forensic Examiner," based on a general information and ethics test. Acertification test that meets the standards of validity and reliability must test discipline-specific knowledge. What is the value if it does not meet these standards?

Did the certificate holder actually participate in testing to earn certification? Another organization had a grandfathering policy for many years with the result that a majority of its members were awarded board certification (Diplomate status) on that basis, without being tested. The organization is now in the process of requiring its untested certificate holders to test so that it meets the standards established by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). For further discussion on FSAB, see page 93. A general query, such as, "Tell me about the XYZ Certification Program," allows the expert to remain truthful while describing the current testing program, even though he/she may have been grandfathered and never tested. Be specific with your questions.

    Ask the following questions about any certification:
  1. Were your tests developed with the assistance of a professional test development agency?
  2. Do your tests meet the national standards of validity and reliability?
  3. Do your tests address the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for forensic document examination?
  4. Are all phases of your tests proctored?
  5. Did you earn your certification through testing or were you grandfathered?
  6. Is your certification board accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB)?

The FSAB was incorporated in 2000 to evaluate board certification programs within the various forensic specialties. Standards were developed against which an applicant board's program and test development procedures are evaluated. Boards that meet these standards are awarded FSAB accreditation. FSAB is a mechanism that allows the forensic community to recognize, assess, and monitor organizations and professional boards that certify individuals in a forensic specialty, providing the legal community with a way to recognize certification boards.

The FSAB accreditation program was established with a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). FSAB began awarding accreditation in 2004 and to date it has accredited boards in four forensic specialties. The Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE) was accredited in 2006. To verify the accreditation status of any forensic specialty board go to the website at

The BFDE offers testing that was developed under the direction of Occupational Research and Assessment (ORA), a professional test development company, utilizing a task group of seasoned document examiners, each with over twenty years of experience. This ensured that the development process included the components necessary for testing knowledge, skills and abilities and to meet test development standards of reliability and validity. To ensure the reliability of the certification credential and the security of the test, the BFDE requires that all portions of the certification tests be proctored. To further insure impartiality, the BFDE has retained ORA to administer and grade the tests.

Recertification criteria
The FSAB requires that an accredited board recertify (renew) each certificate holders' certification every five years. Most boards, whether accredited or not, follow the five year guideline. Renewal is achieved through a program that awards credit for various activities. Recertification requirements are a valid area of inquiry because some boards use criteria that is unacceptable to other boards. For example, one board will award points for holding membership in an organization that sponsors their board. Another board will not give points simply for paying dues to an organization. A board may award points for acting as a trainer while holding a salaried position that requires the individual to do the training as part of his/her job. Another board will not. Boards publish the list of criteria for which points are awarded. The examiner should provide a copy of this document upon request.

Competency in the field of forensic document examination is a difficult area to assess simply from reading a resume. Training and experience play a role, but one cannot necessarily judge the quality of the training simply by its length. The quality of instruction and the trainee's ability to comprehend and assimilate knowledge are crucial. This is another reason that a trainee should upon completion of the training program take a board certification test that meets standards of reliability and validity.

It is reasonable to assume that a certification board has evaluated an applicant's training prior to accepting the individual for testing. However, during an interview one can inquire about training and about any courses listed on a resume. The U.S. Secret Service and FBI, for example, offer two to three week introductory courses.

These agencies do notclaimthat these courses are adequate training for professional practice as a document examiner; yet some retired government special agents or field agents retire and open a private practice after taking such courses. They rely on name-recognition on their resume in the hope that there will be no further inquiry about the length or content of these courses.

Training can vary between the public and private sectors. Individuals who are salaried employees of a government agency are trained in that agency's laboratory to handle the types of cases submitted to that laboratory. The designation trainee is normally for a two-year period. In the private sector, individuals often train over a four-year period on a part-time basis while holding down a full-time job. Unlike their government counterparts, they do not receive a salary while in training and must otherwise support themselves until they establish a practice.

The ability of experts to convince a jury that their opinion is correct not only requires skill in presentation and clear, demonstrative exhibits, but also the ability to handle aggressive cross-examination. The length of training and ability to do casework does not matter if the expert cannot perform well in trial. The number of times an expert has testified is not a reliable indicator of his or her ability. As every attorney knows, an expert who testifies too often may be suspect where ethics are concerned, or may be making errors in his conclusions. In the private sector, an examiner usually testifies in fewer than 5% of his cases. If the expert testifies more often, then ask whether the majority of their opinions are met with an opposing opinion. Opposing opinions are rare among competent document examiners.

The first attempt to develop atwo year full time, in-house type of training program in the private sector was reported in a 1993 article in the Academy News (American Academy of Forensic Science). Previously, private mentorship and/or learning under the guidance of several established examiners was the only way for a person in the private sector to obtain training. This is still the most prevalent method of training today.

As recently as 1999, the authors of Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals state, "Many writer's have bemoaned the lack of standardization in the training programs offered..." One reason for this lack of standardization is the range of services offered by different laboratories in the government and private sectors. Federal laboratories, for example, must offer services for any document problems that may be encountered in a law enforcement situation. These may involve foreign passports, immigration papers, green cards, securities, other government-issued documents and even documents that are charred or water soaked. It would be rare for a private examiner to encounter these types of assignments in casework. Even local police laboratories may not offer this full range of services and instead use the Federal laboratories when necessary. This means that the training of a government examiner at the federal level often includes areas that are not dealt with in private sector training.

Conversely, examiners trained in the private sector, spend more training time on motor control and other issues that may affect the writing of the elderly and person's with health problems because these kinds of writings are encountered frequently in probate issues, while they are not common in law enforcement cases. Jan Seaman Kelly (2006), co-editor of the SecondEdition/Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, noted that private document examiners experience a wider range of document cases than those who work in government laboratories.

In order to assist in the standardization oftraining, the Questioned Document Subcommittee of the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) published a guide for the initial training program in 2005 (E2388). Unfortunately, the guide neglects to include some specific topics useful for case work encountered in the private (civil) sector and tends to be centered more on the needs of crime laboratories.

It is important to explore a potential expert's training relative to the document issues in the case at hand. As the highly respected Ordway Hilton, author of the Revised Edition of Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents (1993) stated, "The most important qualifications of a witness is his ability to do the work." Therefore, a formal training program by itself may not be sufficient to determine if the examiner is qualified for the specific document issues in your case - particularly when the initial training occured many years prior. Whether or not the training occured years ago, ascertain the amount and kind of continuing education and whether that examiner has proven track record of showing that he/she can perform the work competently.

Continuing Education
Inquire whether a potential expert attends continuing education conferences. This is the main way that examiners keep abreast of the changing technology, applications, and research. Board certified examiners are generally required to document a specified number of continuing education credits within a five-year period. Be sure that the examiner you are considering is current in this area.

One difference between document examination organizations is in the type of continuing education programs they offer. One organization may prefer to fill the annual program with as many speakers as possible, generally limiting the papers to twentyminutes. Another organization may offer their presenters an hour or more to explore a topic in greater depth and provide handson experience during the sessions. The Association of Forensic Document Examiners (AFDE) has, for example, offered from three to twelve hour workshops at its annual symposiums.

In addition to programs sponsored by different professional organizations, there are one-half day to several days training programs sponsored by colleges or institutions such as the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York and the College of Microscopy at McCrone Associates in Westmont, Illinois.

Membership in professional organizations
Membership in a professional organization is important, as is service to that organization. There are various organizations of forensic document examiners, each having different criteria for membership. The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, for example, requires an applicant to have completed a two-year, full time apprenticeship program in the laboratory. Since this type of training has only been available, with few exceptions, to employees of a government laboratory, the organizations' membership is almost entirely made up of government and retired government examiners. Other organizations, such as the Association of Forensic Document Examiners, do not place emphasis on salaried laboratory positions as the only means for training. Rather, AFDE requires the submission of an extensive application that includes submitting cases for review and administering testing prior to acceptance of the applicant for membership.

Unfortunately, some organizations see recruitment of members as a competition and claim to be the "best organization" or the "only recognized organization," when the truth is that the various organizations each have something of value to offer its members.

Convincing deposition and trial testimony
In addition to evaluating the examiner's certification and credentials, the attorney needs to consider the ability of the expert to convince a judge or jury that the opinion is correct.This requires skill in presentation and clear, demonstrative exhibits, as well as the ability to handle aggressive cross-examination. Training is of little value if the expert cannot perform well in trial.

The number of times an expert has testified is not a reliable indicator of his or her ability. As every attorney knows, an expert who testifies too often may be suspect where ethics are concerned, or may be making errors in his conclusions. Although in the private sector, an examiner may only testify in approximately 5% of his/her cases, settlement negotiations may be assisted after persuasive deposition testimony. If the expert testifies frequently, then ask whether the majority of their opinions are met with an opposing opinion. Opposing opinions are infrequent among competent document examiners.

Another important question to ask is whether a court has ever rejected the expert's credentials or methodology. There are a few experts with impressive credentials who have continued to testify, even though investigation would lead to the discovery of cases wherein the expert has been rejected by the court. Such information brought out on cross-examination would prove embarrassing for counsel proffering that expert.

Asking the right questions during your interview, carefully reviewing the expert's resume, and being aware of their certification board's requirements can result in the retention of an expert whose work product can be of assistance in pleas, negotiations, settlements, and at trial. Deposition or trial day is not the time to discover that, despite an opinion that supports your client's position, the expert you have hired cannot withstand rugged cross examination that focuses on their certification or lack thereof, their methodology, or current knowledge about what is transpiring within the profession.

Vickie Williard is a Board Certified by by the Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE) and the Association of Forensic Document Examiners (AFDE). She lectures for bar and other professional organizations, is active in her professional organization, currently serving as the president of BFDE, and has been published in the Journal of Forensic Document Examination. She has rendered Expert Opinion on behalf of plaintiffs, prosecutors and defense attorneys in local, state and federal courts. Ms. Willard has testified in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, United States District Court and U.S. Tax Court.
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