Does handwriting examination employ a scientific methodology: does it utilise scientific principles in its processes?

July 12, 2016

 

Science is based on Francis Bacon’s fourfold rule of thumb” Observe – Measure – Explain – Verify. The Webster dictionary describes science as “Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses”. Science is a systematically organised body of knowledge on a particular subject and when researching new areas and seeking answers it follows accepted proven procedures that have been tried and tested. Its processes can be repeated and are reliable and valid. http://www.handwritinganalyst.co.za/#!The-validity-and-reliability-of-forensic-handwriting-examination/c1cnp/5779479b0cf22a49acef1c47

 

Based on the above forensic handwriting examination is a science as it is a discriminatory process that observes and compares the writing habits of different writers and then evaluates the significance of their similarities and differences. As it does not lend itself to pure measurement due to the vast possibilities of diverse shapes that are produced by different writers as well as the presence of natural variation in all writing as well as the impractical nature of conducting numerous measurements, it is categorised as an applied science rather than a pure science. http://www.handwritinganalyst.co.za/#!writing-habits-handwriting-analysis/czr

 

As applied scientists, forensic handwriting examiners are required to use skill, experience and knowledge of handwriting principles together with having proficiency in applying scientific processes and knowledge to the examination of handwriting. Forensic handwriting examiners’ findings are more than just opinion; they reflect the application of relevant universally accepted empirical testing where propositions or hypotheses whether handwriting/signatures were/were not written by a particular writer are tested. Their findings should reflect a process that was followed by a methodical compilation and evaluation of all of the observed physical facts, taking into account the basic rules of examination and identification as well as the experts’ own experience. It is upon the examiner to be cognisant of the scientific principles of validity and reliability when proceeding with the investigation of handwriting to apply an objective and observational method of scientific methodology such as the ACE-V process as a working framework that further places handwriting examination within the realm of scientific endeavour. This is a methodology for organising and evaluating data for the purposes of scientific classification and comparison.

 

The acronym ACE-V stands for a four phase process of Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation and Verification (ACE-V). Roy Huber. A, a Canadian forensic document examiner first described the ACE-V Process as a general model for forensic examinations (Huber 1959; Huber 1972; Huber & Headrick 1999). It is used to “individualise or exclude impressions or objects as having originated from an identical source or as being one in the same.” (Coppick, 2012)

 

“A” represents the first phase of the examination - the analysis. This is the phase when information is gathered and analysed for specificity and relevance. The information would be the known or questioned handwriting or signatures and they would be reduced to their discriminating elements – “the elements that are directly observable, measurable or generally perceptible aspects of the item” (Huber & Headrick, 1999) and show them to be unique to a particular writer or what features or characteristics differentiate the writing. “C” is the second phase and represents the comparison stage where side by side comparisons are made between the known and questioned writing/signatures and discriminating elements of the unknown, observed or determined through analysis, examination, or study, must be compared with those known, observed or recorded of the standard item(s)” (Huber & Headrick). “E” is the third phase – evaluation; where the information concerning similarities and dissimilarities in the discriminating elements that were generated in the analysis and comparison stages are evaluated and the significance of their occurrence or non-occurrence is given by the examiner in reaching a conclusion. The last stage is the “V” stage and this is the verification or quality assurance stage; where a second expert document examiner could be asked to retest the original hypothesis using the ACE process in order to determine whether it is possible to formally individualise or exclude particular information sets used for comparison.

 

Other systems using similar processes have been formulated by Found and Rogers (1995) who use the terms “Subjective Feature Extraction”, “Comparison and Decision as to Similarity or Difference” and “Propose Possible Explanations and Complexity Decision” in their 3 phase model of forensic comparison method. Hardy and Fagel (1995) use the terms “Analysis of traces or objects, “Comparison of the analysis results” and “Determination of the relative individuality of the characteristics”.

 

Is the ACE-V process a subjective methodology – that is - based on perceptions, feelings and intentions - or an objective methodology– that is - was the writing examined, conclusions verified and the features in the writing that lead to the conclusions demonstrated in an objective and unbiased manner? I discuss this question in my next article on the methods utilised by responsible forensic handwriting examiners to remove subjectivity and bias……

  • Craig Coppock, Universal Definition of ACE-V Updated, 6-19-2012

  • Huber, R.A., Expert Witness. The Criminal Law Quarterly. (1959), 2 (3),276-295, Huber, R.A., The philosophy of identification, RMCP Gazette (1972), July-August, 9-14, Huber, R.A and Headrick, A.M. Handwriting Identification, Facts and Fundamentals, 1999

  • Found, Ryan and Rogers, Doug, Contemporary issues in Forensic Handwriting Examination. A Discussion of Key Issues in the Wake of the Starzecpyzel Decision, Journal of Forensic Document Examination, 1995 fall: 8: pp 1-31

  • Hardy, H.J.J. and Fagel, W., Methodological Aspects of Handwriting Identification. Journal of Forensic Document Examination, 1995 Fall: pp 33-69

  • Langenburg, G.M., 2008 A Performance Study of the ACE-V Process: A Pilot Study to measure the Accuracy, Precision, Reproducibility, Repeatability, and Biasability of Conclusions Resulting from the ACE-V Process, Journal of Forensic Identification 59(2), 2009\219

  • Langenburg, G.M., 2012, A Critical Analysis and Study of the ACE-V Process, University of Lausanne, Doctoral Thesis

 

 

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