Forensic document examiners, also often referred to as questioned document examiners, are forensic scientists who are responsible for using a number of scientific processes and methods for examining documents—whether written, typed, or printed—related to a crime scene investigation. They are handwriting experts, as well as experts in other areas of document examination, including machine-printing processes; and obliterated, indented, and erased entries.
The most common type of questioned document examination involves identifying the authorship of a written letter. It is also common for forensic document examiners to determine if an item originated from the same source as a known item, determine when a document was produced, and decipher information on a document that has been erased, hidden, or obscured.
Given the highly technical and scientific nature of the field of questioned document examination, forensic document examiners must gain formal education and training. A bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar program is a common course of study, as this type of degree provides forensic document examiners with a solid foundation in forensics and knowledge of the criminal justice system. There is no specific college degree program to become a forensic document examiner. However, the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) and other professional associations recommend a baccalaureate degree along with experience in laboratory work and field training.
Training programs for forensic document examiners generally last about two years. These programs involve studying the basic literature of the field and completing projects that teach the examination process, while at the same time demonstrating how questioned document examination fits into criminal and civil investigations of all kinds.
The University of Baltimore is one of the rare schools to offer an undergraduate 12-credit certificate program. You can complete the one-year certificate at the university’s Jami R. Grant Forensic Laboratories. You will learn:
- How to protect and examine documents of forensic and historic significance.
- How to use state-of-the-art equipment in the examination of documents.
- How to record and collect evidence.
- How to maintain the scientific integrity of the evidence in addition to the legal chain of custody.
- How to present and defend the findings of the investigation within a legal framework, either in courts or in a deposition.
There are independent online sources for training in forensic document examination. Forensic Document Examination Interactive Training Program is a worthwhile investment both in time and in money, especially for aspiring document examiners. It is thorough, well organized, thought-provoking, and challenging where the student earns his or her grade. Each student has an assigned experienced document examiner who provides one-on-one assistance. The course covers all aspects of the examination of documents and the business of document examination.
The FBI employs document analysts in the specialty of Questioned Documents. The principal duties require the analyst to Inventory, examine, and perform comprehensive technical analyses of evidence such as handwriting, hand printing, typewriting, paper, altered or obliterated writing, burned or charred paper, and counterfeit documents. Their education requirements are a bachelor’s degree in physical and biological sciences, graphic arts, police science, criminology, or law from an accredited college or university. Furthermore, the FBI trains the selected candidate. The individual must sign a Forensic Examiner Training Agreement to remain a forensic examiner in the FBI Laboratory for two years after the completion of training.
The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) has a library of 433 books and 198 journals for members only. All are available in PDF format. Membership mandates a baccalaureate degree, two years training under the supervision of a Practicing Document Examiner, and a minimum of two years experience as an examiner. The Society further promotes the continuing education of document examiners by providing quality workshops for members and their guests. The ASQDE has long recognized the importance of attracting new forensic document examiners to join our organization.
Albert S. Osborn, known as the “Father of Document Examination” wrote Questioned Documents, the first practical book on the subject. Originally published in 1910, it was republished in 1929. Mr. Osborn was one of the founders of the ASQDE in 1942.
Another membership organization features examination training. The International Association of Document Examiners (IADE) offers continuing education program in a virtual classroom format. Each class touches upon a subject related to document examination and is independent of the other classes enabling you to join at any time during the two-year period. The classes are free and can be used to meet the requirements of IADE for continuing education for all members.
One way to by bypass a master’s degree and add to your education (and your credentials) is to take a graduate certificate. A graduate certificate in Forensic Document Examination consists of four courses (12 semester hours) online. The courses cover the scientific methodology of document examination, handwriting identification, computer altered documents, and more. You can complete this in two semesters.
Additional Sources for Information:
Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE)