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A Weak Forensic Document Examiner's Opinion Helps Win Case

By: Mike Wakshull
Tel: 951-252-4929
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You have hired a forensic examiner to analyze evidence for your civil case. After a thorough examination of the evidence, the forensic examiner delivers a weak forensic opinion toward favoring your theory of the case. Will the examiner's weak opinion help you in trial? When the opinion fails to show a preponderance of evidence, can you still prevail at trial?

in 2016 I was retained by the plaintiff in this civil wrongful death case in San DIego County: Zahau v. Shacknai. Previously, the county coroner ruled the decedent committed suicide. Her family believed she was murdered by Adam Shacknai.

My retention was to compare the writing on a door inside the Spreckels Mansion with the handwriting of the victim, Rebecca Zahau, with the handwriting of the accused, Adam Shacknai. The hand printed message was "SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER."

Image of Hand Writing She saved him can you save her

The scope of my work was determining whether either Ms. Zahau or Mr. Shacknai had written the words on the door. Several other examiners were retained to examine other technical aspects. These included a knot expert, a medical pathology expert, a forensic psychiatrist, and others.

The handwriting on the door was done in block printed text. This meant the exemplars also must be handprinted block letters. Cursive writing could not be used for comparison. A generally accepted practice in handwriting comparison is handwriting must be compared with the same type of writing. The only examples I had of Mr. Shacknai's handwriting were six verification pages he had signed. Typically, a signature is not a valid exemplar for hand printing. Fortunately, Mr. Shacknai wrote his signature as handprinted block letters. Therefore, I had writing to compare with the writing on the door. This limitation led to a weak forensic opinion on authorship.

Exemplars of Ms. Zahau that contain block print were application forms, immigration forms, and other documents she had handprinted. The exemplars were written in different physical locations between 2002 and 2009. These documents also contained Ms. Zahau's signature. The defense objected on foundation whether these forms were written by Ms. Zahau.

I had compared the signatures on these documents with Ms. Zahau's known signatures. The result was the signatures on the exemplars were authenticated as having been written by Ms. Zahau.

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Mike Wakshull, MS, CQE, PMP, CISA, is a forensic document examiner based in Temecula, CA. He holds a graduate school certificate in forensic document examination from East Tennessee State University and a master's degree in Technology Management from the University of Denver. Mike is Chair of the 2012 National Association of Document Examiners Conference in San Diego.

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