The Expert In The Witness-box
When the expert has been called upon to give an opinion upon the
genuineness of writings he embodies his conclusions in a report of which
the following may be taken as a fair example:--
To the Chief of Police.
REX _versus_ JONES.
In accordance with your instructions dated ---- I beg leave to
that I have made a careful examination of the document
marked _A_, and attached hereto, and compared it with the documents
marked _B_, _C_, _D_, _E_ and _F_, also attached.
I have arrived at the conclusion that the document _A_ was written
by the same hand as produced _B_, _C_, _D_, _E_ and _F_.
The main reasons which have led me to form this opinion are these:--
First, although the writing in _A_ bears at first sight no
resemblance to that of the other documents, the difference is only
such as experience leads me to expect in a writing which has been
purposely disguised, as I believe this has been.
The writing on the five documents _B_ to _F_ I take to be the normal
hand of the author, and that on _A_ to be the same writer's hand
altered so as to present a different appearance. I will call the
specimens _B_ to _F_ the genuine examples, and _A_ the disguised.
Experience shows that the person who writes an anonymous letter
generally seeks to disguise his hand by departing as much as he
deems possible from his normal writing. The usual hand of the writer
of the genuine document is a free rounded hand sloping upwards
towards the right. The writing of _A_ presents exactly the features
I would expect to find when, as appears to be the case here, the
writer has adopted the familiar trick of sloping his writing in a
direction opposite to his normal hand. While the result of this
change is to alter the apparent style and general appearance of the
writing, the alteration does not extend to certain tricks and
characteristics which are plainly obvious in the genuine letters and
are repeated in the anonymous letter _A_.
The writing in the genuine letters contains fourteen very
distinctive peculiarities, or tricks of hand, which I find repeated
in the anonymous letter _A_.
(Here describe them, as for example.)
1. The figure 4 in the dates is always made like the print form of
2. The small _e_ is always of the Greek form.
3. The small _t_ is always crossed by a bar thick at the beginning,
tapering to a point, with its longest part behind the shank of
the _t_ [and so on].
The various points of resemblance are set out in detail, a separate
paragraph for each, and each paragraph numbered.
It is extremely important that a report should be fully descriptive and
written in plain, non-technical language, easily understood by the jury,
who will have to decide whether the resemblance has been made out.
Too many handwriting experts spoil the effect of their evidence by
employing technical language and presuming on the part of the jury an
acquaintance with the methods of comparing handwritings.
Do not be satisfied by saying that certain letters resemble each other.
Show by an enlarged diagram how and where, indicating the parts to which
attention is called by arrows. Place the single letters to be compared
in parallel columns, headed with the alphabetical letter distinguishing
the document in which the particular letter occurs. Use foolscap paper,
and write on one side of the paper only.
The usual method of dealing with the handwriting expert in the
witness-box is shown in the following extract from a report of an actual
Mr. D. B---- was called by counsel for the prosecution and duly sworn.
Q.--You have had considerable experience in examining handwriting.
A.--Over twenty years.
Q.--Look at these documents. (Hands documents to witness.) Have you seen
and examined these?
Q.--Have you formed any opinion upon them?
A.--I have, and have prepared a report.
In some cases the expert is allowed to read his report in full. In
others he is requested to give a verbal report, but if the point be
insisted upon, the judge generally permits the report to be read, either
by the expert or by counsel. A copy of the report, together with the
documents in dispute are then usually handed to the jury for
examination. The expert may proceed to illustrate his point with the aid
of a blackboard and chalk, but much depends upon the attitude taken by
the judge and counsel. Some judges insist that the expert shall confine
himself to expressing his opinion, leaving counsel to deal with the
explanation and comparison; others give the expert every opportunity of
showing how he has arrived at his opinions.
The examination in chief is usually a very simple matter. The trouble
for the expert begins when counsel for the other side gets up to
In nearly every case the object of the cross-examining counsel is to
ridicule the art and get the expert to admit the possibility of other
writers possessing the same peculiarities which are said to distinguish
the letters before the Court.
Counsel's favourite trick is to select some letter and ask the expert if
he is prepared to swear that he has never seen something just like it in
some other person's writing. The expert who knows his business will
insist on keeping well to the front the bedrock basis of handwriting
comparison, which is the application of the law of probability to
cumulative evidence. It is not a question whether some other person may
be in the habit of making a _t_ or a _k_ similar to those cited as
evidences of common origin, but whether it is probable that two persons
should make a dozen or more letters in precisely the same way under
similar conditions and exhibit precisely the same peculiarities of
style. He should reply with the unanswerable postulate that millions of
persons possess red hair, snub noses, a scar on the face, blue eyes,
bent fingers and a stammer; but it is millions to one against any two
persons possessing all six of those peculiarities.
In the course of his replies the expert may justifiably help his own
case by repeating, when opportunity occurs, such irrefutable axioms as,
No writer can say off-hand what peculiarities he may exhibit; that there
are scores of ways of dotting an _i_, or crossing a _t_, and that few
persons know which form they mostly affect. Fifty such points may be
gathered from this little volume alone, while acquaintance with the
works of other writers on caligraphy will supply ample ammunition for
meeting and repelling the customary form of attack on the handwriting
Another method of discrediting a witness is to remind him that experts
have differed, the Dreyfus case being usually cited. The answer is
obvious. First it is essential to be assured that those experts were all
competent, for there are degrees of competency in judging handwriting as
in every other subject on which opinion may be called. It is a notorious
fact that in the Dreyfus case the most competent experts testified that
the Henry letters were forgeries, the authorities called on the other
side being in most cases unknown men or amateurs of no standing. A
number of these self-styled experts possessed no other qualification
than presumed familiarity with the handwriting of Dreyfus. It is also
worthy of note that several of the experts on both sides proved most
inefficient witnesses, obscuring their explanations by the employment of
technical phraseology which conveyed little meaning to the lay mind.
Exactitude and regularity in the choice of the words used in describing
the parts of letters should be strictly observed by the student. The
rules given in the chapter on "Terminology" should be mastered and
adhered to. In most cases the terms there applied to letter-analysis
will be found to be self-explanatory.