Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.
Source: Laura C. Fulginiti, PhD, 2022-23 AAFS President
The Academy Aperçus is a monthly feature that celebrates 75 years of forensic science by spotlighting the history and anticipating the future of each section of the Academy. Beginning with the Jurisprudence Section and progressing through each section in the order of acknowledgement by the Academy, a senior member will join with a junior member to memorialize salient events, highlight members, and provide insight into why the Academy remains the premier forensic science organization in the world. This month features the Questioned Documents Section.
Reflecting on the History of the Questioned Documents Section
Source: Carl R. McClary, MS, AAFS Past President and Questioned Documents Section Fellow
With pride, we provide an account of the Questioned Document (QD) Section’s lengthy association with the Academy, focusing on the most recent past and including a perspective of where the section is aimed to go in the near future. We are comprised of dedicated men and women who always step up to the plate when called upon to serve our Academy and our discipline. As you will see here and in the Academy’s history cited below, we have deep roots in the forensic community and impressive contributions planned for the future.
When the Academy began its formal organization of distinct sections in 1950, Questioned Documents was among the first seven. Our section was first chaired by Clark Sellers, a Fellow member. Mr. Sellers, of California, was known for having participated, with seven other document examiners, in the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the Lindberg baby kidnapping, one of the more famous of handwriting cases in the United States and dubbed as the “Crime of the Century.” The case involved the 1934 kidnapping of the infant son of Colonel Charles Lindbergh. Several ransom letters were found and, upon his capture, known writings of Hauptmann were compared with those on the letters. Hauptmann was identified as the writer and a conviction was rendered after a trial that included lengthy testimony and demonstrative charts. Mr. Sellers was also the second president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, having served from 1946 to 1950, and president of the Southern Academy of Criminology.
Our own Maureen A. Casey Owens, BA, former Chief Document Examiner for the Criminalistics Division of the Chicago Police Department holds the honor of being the second woman president of the Academy. She led from 1984 to 1985 (the first having been June K. Jones from 1979 to 1980). Mrs. Owens was also involved in a notable case in which she concluded that a purported diary of Jack the Ripper was not authentic. These and other early QD Section members’ valuable contributions in the first 50 years of the Academy’s history are found in History of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 1948-1998.. This is an invaluable historical account by former executive director Kenneth Field.
While serving as the 2021-22 AAFS President, I saw many changes during that year. The Board during my term, along with the previous work of many others, contributed to the passage of several landmark AAFS achievements, including the formalizing of the Forensic Nursing Science Section (making us an even dozen!) and the Professional Affiliate level that provides a formal path of association in the Academy for those in forensic support positions. My idea for the AAFS Connect, our on-demand platform, was to provide much of our content virtually to a worldwide audience. Additionally, an ad hoc committee was created to develop a database of members interested in serving on committees and other voluntary positions, providing a more inclusive and streamlined method of volunteering for service to the Academy.
Contributions in our most recent past include the work of several members of the QD Section who participated in ground-breaking work on behalf of our discipline. In addition to black box studies and other work on the validity of handwriting examination, our members have contributed to other landmark projects. One such project was The Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination that published the Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach (February 2020). This was produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Programs Office and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS). Among the group were AAFS members Ted Burkes, Wesley Grose, Linton Mohammed, John Paul Osborn, and Tom Vastrick. The goal was to assess the effects of human factors on handwriting examination and to provide methods of improvement of the practice for the reduction in chance of error. This expansive project assessed the foundations of handwriting examination and interpreting comparison data. It discusses bias, effective report writing, the value of Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) programs, education, training, and certification, as well as research needs.
Forensic Document Examination (FDE) has a long and successful history in the creation and promulgation of forensic standards, and numerous AAFS QD Section members participate in the Academy Standards Board (ASB) Consensus Body (CB). Bolstered by the work of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) and the Scientific Working Group of Document Examiners (SWGDOC), much success has been realized in the ASB QD consensus body. SWGDOC maintains 24 standards, an impressive body of work previously published by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and we currently have three published American National Standards Institute (ANSI) -approved standards through the ASB.
Besides our continued progress and evolution on many fronts, we have had challenges since the early 1990s and, indeed, the past 25 years. Our discipline, in addition to many others in the pattern recognition arena, was especially focused on in attacks to the validity of the expertise via Daubert challenges. Though rare today, the challenges were previously frequent, and a few testimonies were denied or limited during the early years of the Rule. Our members prepared strong, fact-based responses, citing numerous studies and standards championing our value to the justice system. FDE testimony has now been upheld in every appellate circuit in the United States.
Never ones to shy away from a chance to have fun at Academy meetings and let our hair down, QD members often participate in games at their receptions and, of course, dancing at the president’s reception. One memorable meeting in Anaheim, CA, found several members competing in a challenge, courtesy of gamemaster Zain Bhaloo, whereby one had to move an Oreo cookie, placed on their forehead, down to their mouth without dropping it. Another game challenged the competitor to empty ping pong balls through a hole in a pasteboard box while it was tied to their backs, and past Section Chair Karen Nobles is remembered as providing an impressive effort. Combining this activity with a libation made for an unforgettable event! A hilarious video is available. This was the same year the section won the Academy Cup trivia challenge, complete with a cup “parade” down the reception halls the night of the win. With the Cup on hiatus since the pandemic, QD may very well be the longest holder of the title to date!
Sink or Swim. In the Deep End. With the Big Fish.
Source: Zain Bhaloo, MSc, Questioned Documents Section Associate Member
That was my first thought about what I was jumping into/being thrown into at the first AAFS meeting I attended. In Las Vegas too, of all places. My manager told me, “They are expecting you. Now go and figure it out … Have fun!” She knew me well enough that she could do that and expect a positive outcome, but not everyone would feel comfortable being in that situation. Thankfully, I learned almost immediately that though it may seem scary and overwhelming before attending, once you are there amid the hustle and bustle of the conference, it is actually quite the opposite. The moment you walk through the doors you have become part of a large AAFS family and have access to vast amounts of information, support, resources, and so much more. Interestingly, as a non-member (at that time) and a first-time international attendee, I had even more support at my fingertips: other non-members, other first-time attendees, and other international attendees, almost all of whom were as wide-eyed as I, yet at the same time as full of anticipation and excitement as I was. It was after my first International Attendees reception that I knew that the AAFS was where I wanted to be. Subsequently attending several other high-quality and prestigious conferences served to confirm that.
Fast forward more than five years and I am the Chair of the Young Forensic Scientists Forum (YFSF), the Chair of the Professional Affiliate Review Committee, a newly minted Associate Member of the AAFS in arguably one of the most historied sections in the AAFS at a time when forensics can do more than it ever has and is looking at a future we never could have imagined. If ever there were big shoes that needed filling, they are in the Questioned Documents Section. However, I, like many of my fellow section members, cast my gaze forward and not so much backward. We can never forget where we came from, what we went through to get here, and all the amazing relationships and bonds we forged along the way, but many, if not all, of you will agree, technology is not slowing down, and many more interesting and challenging problems are in our future than are in our past, and we will need to develop the tools to overcome them.
I see a future in which the forensic sciences and technology are so intertwined and they synergize like never seen before to solve complex problems that only multidisciplinary collaboration could effectively solve. Very soon, fields like biometrics and digital identification will explode exponentially into the main stream to include some of the oldest and most reliable biometrics we are aware of—handwriting and signatures. We are already scratching the vast amount of previously uncalculated biometric information and potential present in signatures. As computers and technology become more powerful and ubiquitous, initiatives like the Forensic Document Examination Steering Group that bring together the finest minds to address, and stay ahead of, these known and potential difficulties of tomorrow will be the next logical step, much like the obligatory work on standards currently being undertaken. I also believe that the young forensic scientists coming up through the ranks are the best positioned and will be the best equipped to take on and overcome these challenges. I am proud to be part of initiatives such as the Academy Mentorship Program and the YFSF as I believe they provide indispensable tools and opportunities for these young scientists and will do so for many years to come.
I believe the AAFS provides us with the best possible platform to learn, teach, grow, nurture, and become better scientists. It also sets the stage on which we can embrace and leverage these new technologies to engage in more precise, more accurate, and more accountable science. Because after all … Science Works!