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

inform yo
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

that figure.

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?

A.--I have.

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.