Handwriting Expert Witnesses: Role, Value, & Admissibility

Who wrote a particular note or signed a document - and how can we tell? The answers to these questions can make or break a legal case.

Person writing on paper document

ByDani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

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Published on June 18, 2024

Person writing on paper document

A forensic handwriting analysis can help answer such questions. Handwriting expert witnesses specialize in helping attorneys settle questions about handwritten evidence, such as who wrote something and when.

What Does a Handwriting Expert Witness Do?

Forensic handwriting analysis is the practice of identifying handwriting based on unique factors in the writing itself. Handwriting expert witnesses can:

  • Examine documents to determine whether a large enough handwriting sample exists for analysis and, if so, compare the writing to known samples for authentication.
  • Opine on whether writing on a single document all came from the same source.
  • Detect forgeries by comparing a handwriting sample to a known sample.

Forensic handwriting analysis is based on the premise that no two individuals have identical handwriting. Each person will produce letters of slightly different shapes, making different grooves, indentations, and other identifying features as they do.

Handwriting expert witnesses apply pattern-based scientific principles to their work, analyzing letter formations, line quality, alignment of letters, and the spacing and placement of writing. They also compare handwriting samples to determine whether the two came from the same source.

Handwriting experts typically express their results on a nine-point scale developed by experts within the field. The scale ranges from “Identification,” a definite positive conclusion, to “Elimination,” a definite negative conclusion. Most results fall somewhere within these extremes.

Qualifications of a Handwriting Expert Witness

Handwriting expert using magnifying glass on document

Handwriting expert witnesses need expertise in handwriting analysis, document examination, and forensic science. Training typically begins with a baccalaureate degree in forensic science and continues for several years in a forensic laboratory under the guidance of an experienced document analyst.

Trained handwriting expert witnesses may be certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), which requires applicants to undergo additional testing to demonstrate their skills before receiving certification. Several courts have recognized ABFDE certification as a valid credential for a handwriting expert witness. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) also publishes standards for forensic document and handwriting analysis.

Expert Institute’s Expert Search Service can help attorneys engage actively practicing handwriting expert witnesses who meet all requirements for litigation experience, specialty area, professional credentials and certifications, location, fee range, and more. We carefully vet our experts to provide leading candidates based on case-specific criteria.

Is Handwriting Analysis Admissible in Court?

The work of a handwriting expert witness is admissible in court under both the Daubert and Frye standards. For example, in Wolf v. Ramsey, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote that “forensic document examiners, who are equipped with the proper background qualification and who employ the accepted methodology in their analysis, can serve to assist the trier of fact, in some regards, through providing reliable testimony about similarities or differences, or both, between a questioned writing and comparative exemplars.”

Like other expert witnesses, a handwriting expert may analyze information, perform tests, form an expert opinion, prepare reports, and testify to their opinion and its basis.

Forensic handwriting analysis can play a key role in deciding a case. In US v. Crisp (2003), the defendant, Patrick Crisp, appealed multiple convictions to the Middle District of North Carolina on one basis: Does forensic handwriting analysis satisfy the criteria for expert opinion testimony outlined in Daubert?

The court held that it did, affirming Crisp’s conviction - which was based in part on a note whose handwriting (and characteristic misspelling of “tomorrow”) was matched to Crisp’s.

Challenges and Limitations

Forensic handwriting experts and the practice of handwriting analysis continue to face misconceptions and challenges. Some of these hurdles are based on limitations in the science of handwriting analysis, while others are based on myths or misunderstandings. They include:

  • Questions about the scientific rigor of handwriting analysis,
  • Lack of a unified, comprehensive evaluation standard used by all experts,
  • Inconsistencies in professional skills and background of individuals offering services as forensic handwriting experts,
  • Variations in the tools, technologies, and techniques used when assessing handwriting.

Despite these challenges, forensic handwriting analysis tends to produce reliable results. A 2022 study of 7,196 opinions by experienced forensic document experts found that only 3.1 percent of results were false positives and only 1.1 percent were false negatives.

Error rates were lowest among experts with more than two years of experience. However, these experts were also less likely to come to definitive conclusions, instead indicating that samples “probably” were or were not a match to exemplars.

Working With a Handwriting Expert Witness

Attorney meeting with handwriting expert

Attorneys can work with handwriting expert witnesses more effectively by first understanding what these experts do. Handwriting specialists do not typically restrict themselves to comparing how two samples of handwriting look. While they may examine the shapes of letters, the length of lines, and so on, they are more likely to focus on how letters are formed. For example, did the writer tend to press down hard while crossing their ts in one sample, but these same crossbars are scarcely present in the other?

Preparing for direct and cross-examination requires a focus on the scientific background of forensic document examination generally and of the expert witness in particular. It also requires a clear understanding of the challenges and limitations. It is best not to assume that an expert’s finding that two samples “probably” match is less trustworthy than a finding that samples definitely do or do not match. As noted above, more experienced examiners are less likely to be definitive in their conclusions. Take the time to dig into how the expert came to their conclusions.

Handwriting analysis continues to evolve in the digital age. As it does, it continues to provide value in many civil and criminal cases. Understanding the limitations of handwriting analysis can help attorneys find and prepare experts for trial.

About the author

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D., is a multifaceted legal professional with a background in insurance defense, personal injury, and medical malpractice law. She has garnered valuable experience through internships in criminal defense, enhancing her understanding of various legal sectors.

A key part of her legal journey includes serving as the Executive Note Editor of the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review. Dani graduated with a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007, after completing her B.A. in English, summa cum laude, in 2004. She is a member of the Michigan State Bar and the American Bar Association, reflecting her deep commitment to the legal profession.

Currently, Dani Alexis has channeled her legal expertise into a successful career as a freelance writer and book critic, primarily focusing on the legal and literary markets. Her writing portfolio includes articles on diverse topics such as landmark settlements in medical negligence cases, jury awards in personal injury lawsuits, and analyses of legal trial tactics. Her work not only showcases her legal acumen but also her ability to communicate complex legal issues effectively to a wider audience. Dani's blend of legal practice experience and her prowess in legal writing positions her uniquely in the intersection of law and literature.

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