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A Day In The Life Of A Forensic Document Examiner
Hi, this is Bart Baggett. I’m driving back from San Bernardino as I write this. Actually, I’m dictating this.
Today I went to San Bernardino to testify in a probate case where there was a handwritten will of an 80-year old woman, but in my opinion, was forged. I didn’t get to give that opinion because the opposing attorney had some very clever moves up her sleeve. Now, by clever moves I don’t mean that she was able to get me disqualified or make me look silly on the stand. She was able to not let me on the stand. After sitting for an hour while she offered a settlement to my client, she then finally asked the judge to continue the case for another month. The judge said, “Well why should I give you a continuance when the expert witness is sitting right here? It cost $1,000 to bring him back.” She responded to the judge, “Well, you let him have a continuance last month. You owe me a continuance.” And I’ll be darned if the judge didn’t grant her a continuance, send her expert witness away, and thus I was not allowed to testify today.
The back story is that the handwritten will was one of the worst forged wills I’ve ever seen. In fact, I discovered today that the writer of the forged will was in the courtroom. Her ex-husband looked at the will and said, “I recognize my ex-wife’s handwriting. She wrote the will…not the dead lady.” Now that, combined with my testimony, would have been quite strong if, of course, I was able to take the stand.
The one reason my client might decide to settle without calling me back is that he is not an attorney. He could not afford an attorney, and since it’s a civil case the state doesn’t give him one. So out of his own pocket he’s paid my company over $1,800 so far to prove the will is forged…which it is…and he risked the prejudice of the court ruling against him because he may not know the protocol to get an expert witness accepted, get evidence into admission, or even function normally in a trial. If you are an aspiring expert witness, realize that if your client is a pro se attorney, you are risking your credentials unless you are very experienced on the witness stand. I actually watched a seasoned, veteran expert witness get slaughtered because the pro se attorney was unable to ask basic questions such as, “What do you do?” … “Tell me how your training occurred.”… And “Why do you consider yourself an expert?” He was unable to articulate those questions and thus the expert was severely discredited because the pro se attorney was so inarticulate.
One of the things that you also need to be wary of with any testimony–especially expert witness testimony with a pro se attorney– is the Federal Rules of Evidence. You might want to familiarize yourself with the Federal Rules of Evidence 702 through 705 which talk about the admissibility of evidence that the expert witness relies on. In general, they give wide discretion on the judge allowing evidence into the court if the expert witness relies on that evidence. The problem is: If the evidence is “inadmissible” in another area, such as ‘the gun was found in the apartment but the search warrant wasn’t properly executed, so the gun is inadmissible’, but the opinion of an expert relies on the gun, the judge still may have that expert testify as to his opinion, but he may choose not to allow him to talk about the gun, because the jury would be tainted. So there’s a lot of room in the world of evidence for that.
In the case of expert witness, if you relied on the document to bring into the courtroom, you may have to produce that document a week ahead of the trial. Then, if you fail to produce that document on time for the opposing attorney to inspect, the judge may decide not to let you talk or render an opinion on it. Now, this is not common, but it has happened to me. When I went to court three weeks ago, the exhibits that I prepared were not allowed into evidence because the opposing attorney said he didn’t get them the night before. That’s silly, since that’s usually when I make my exhibits…the night before. But once in a while at trials, the exhibits aren’t allowed because the attorney didn’t follow the proper protocol. So as an expert witness you’ve got to be very wary of these things going wrong, and if you have a pro se client you have to do extra-careful mentoring to make sure he has the right questions.
In this case we actually sent our pro se client an e-mail, listing questions for him to ask: What is your name? What is your career? What do you do? How did you get trained? What are your credentials? Have you been on TV? This list of questions was in sequence for him so that he wouldn’t get up there and get tongue-tied. Unfortunately, he never got to ask those questions because the continuance was granted. So if he calls me back on the witness stand in a month, he would have to pay another $1,000.
To make the long story a little bit longer, or at least to wrap up this trial, the nice man who spent money because the caregiver of his sister decided to fake a will, will probably end up getting what is rightfully his. He’ll get the house, and he’ll get the car, and he’ll get other material items. The attorney showed up today with a settlement agreement which essentially admitted that they are willing to exclude the will. They didn’t admit to forging it, but they agreed to excluding it. Of course, the estate would go back to the will on file which was properly prepared and executed at an attorney’s office in 2004. Of course, that is fair, but in negotiations the caregiver, or the woman living with the decedent, wants the two dogs, the dishwasher, the couch, a lamp and all her clothes. Really, all her clothes and the two dogs!!! That is what they are negotiating and settling in the judge’s chambers at the courthouse as I speak.
So in conclusion, the life of this expert document examiner is very interesting. Sometimes it’s sad to see a woman that handwrites a will and signs a dead woman’s name to not get prosecuted for perjuryor forgery, and walks away with the two dogs…. but so is life.
“I totally recommend the International School of FDE to anyone who wants a new career in the field of forensic document examination.”
— Topanga Bird
Today in Court – Diary of a Document Examiner’s Court Testimony
Hi, this is Beth Chrisman, professional forensic document examiner. This article is about the testimony part of our career.
If you’re interested in a new career, this short series of newsletters and blogs that I call Diary of a Forensic Document Examiner will help you decide if this field is right for you.
Like most working professionals, I often get inquiries from individuals that want to see if this is a career they could succeed in. While I take very few apprentices these days, I still enjoy teaching and sharing this science. ,
These simple diary emails will help you understand the ‘day in the life’ of an examiner.
Overview and Video Tour:
Testimony FORENSIC DOCUMENT EXAMINER DIARY ENTRY #43
I’m submitting this diary today via my iPhone record function as I drive home on the 101 in Los Angeles eating my Haagen Dazs Vanilla Chocolate Almond ice cream that I treated myself to because I just finished testifying in court… and I deserve a treat.
Court today was absolutely an amazing experience for me, as I was able to help someone who had been wronged… and make a difference.
Most cases do not fall into the category of the case I just testified in. Mainly, most cases which get to court have more exemplars to compare the purportedly “forged document” against.
In this case, I actually had six questioned documents and just one sample of the suspected forger and one sample of the victim of the forgery. Naturally, weeks ago, I determined there was indeed a forgery and now I am asked to identify the forger… with just one “smoking gun” of a handwriting sample.
After much lab time, my official opinion was that the person did not sign her own name on the Questioned six documents… a forgery did happen. Furthermore, the suspect they identified probably forged her signature on the six documents in question. This is rare when we identify the forger; in most cases, the criminal goes undetected. The handwriting, in this case, had many profound indicators pointing to this one guy.
So, I was driving to court this morning, a little nervous. According to the attorney who hired me, today’s court appearance is “just a prove-up hearing, it’s going to be really simple”.
I’ve learned that any time anyone tells you it’s going to be really simple… it ends up not being very simple. But in this case, the attorney was telling the truth, it was actually that simple.
I showed up and sat in the back row of the courtroom. I waited for the attorney to make opening remarks, talk to the judge, and iron out some details. The defendant actually didn’t even show up… but the hearing went forward anyway.
When it was my turn, I took the witness stand and stated my name, my occupation and the usual “swear in” procedure. Then, I answered some basic questions in regards to the documents analyzed and told the judge my official opinion.
The judge asked a few clarifying questions about how I got to my opinions and why I use ASTM guidelines when rendering an “official opinion”. Since I teach at the International School, those questions were easy to answer… as I have probably answered them for students a hundred times over the past few years. There is a protocol for everything we do and we follow a “system”… so explaining a system is quite easy, even to a judge sitting 2 feet above you in a black robe.
I have to tell you, I think I was on the stand maybe 25-30 minutes… at the very max. It was very easy. I guess what they say about being well prepared is true. Even though this was not my first time testifying in a court of law, I still was a bit nervous as I took the stand.
I felt good about my testimony, and I really felt a sense of “justice” identifying the person who forged this poor woman’s name on six contracts.
Before I left the building, I discovered something that really made me feel good. It isn’t often that testimony document examiners get confirmation that their opinion is 100% correct before we leave the courthouse. At most, we hear the judge agrees with us.
What I discovered is that the plaintiff had hired a private investigator and caught the guy “on tape” admitting he did indeed forge the documents. I was right, and there was an audio testimony to back me up. Whoo Whee! It’s good to be right and help right a wrong.
So today was a pretty amazing experience, Every time I go to court I learn that my role is just a small piece of a huge, giant legal puzzle that the attorney is putting together. It feels really good to know that I did my part to help the attorney make his case… and find justice for his client.
Not everyone is cut out to analyze forged documents or testify in court. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be me sitting on that witness stand earning over $1500 for my 30-minute testimony… but I did the training and now I’m that person.
If you’re interested in being a document examiner and you think that you have a good eye for detail and enjoy getting to the bottom of something, then look into this as a career for you.
If you’re interested, reach out to the people who helped me get started: The Faculty of the International School of Forensic Document Examination. They have an entire video series about all the aspects of this field and you can speak to their admissions team about if this a good career for you.
Beth Chrisman http://handwritingexpertcalifornia.com
As I said, I’m going to write more stories over the next few weeks…small clips from the life of an examiner.
The International School is the world where you can get trained and the only school where you will get help in launching a career as a certified document examiner with an apprenticeship that allows you to earn real income while you train.
It’s a unique opportunity, but it’s not for everybody. So please take time, watch the videos, explore the online website and call us with any questions before the next class starts.
Overview and Video Tour:
“First class people and first-class training. Bart and Beth were always there to support me and guide me to launch my document exam business. I deeply appreciate their unyielding support to me and my new career. I highly recommend their training.”
Paul Lockyer, Australia