August 23, 2006
This past Saturday, August 19th, the Jacksonville Daily Progress reported the "findings" of a local "handwriting expert" that John M. Karr probably is guilty of the killing of JonBenet Ramsey, based on his analysis of several of Karr's writings and the ransom note left at the scene of the crime. (Attentive readers will also recall that at least one other handwriting expert had identified the ransom note as having come from the hand of JonBenet's mother.) According to the story,
Local handwriting expert Don Lehew, of Mt. Selman, has obtained several samples of John M. Karr’s handwriting, as well as, a copy of the Ramsey ransom note, and according to his analysis, they are all written by the same person. Lehew compared the ransom note to an old yearbook entry by Karr and an employment application Karr filled out when applying for a teaching job.
According to Lehew, several writing features on the yearbook entry were identical to the ransom note, including the unusual curvature of Karr’s “D”s and “L”s, and the odd angle of his “S”s.
“In both samples the slant of the writing is mixed; sometimes it slants right, and sometimes it slants left,” Lehew said.
But the story gets better. This guy, according to the story, can not only identify Karr as the author of the ransom note, but it his expert opinion (based on research, no less) that Karr's writing indicates that he is a pedophile:
“Over the last three years, by collecting samples of known pedophiles, I have created a profile, by identifying the things that are common in their handwriting,” Lehew said. “I’ve looked at writing samples from 23 or 24 known pedophiles to create this profile. I’ve been doing this research for about three years.”
According to Lehew, his profile cannot identify if a person is a pedophile, only that they possess the propensity to be or become one.
“I can’t look at someone’s handwriting and say, “That’s a pedophile.” What I can do is look at it and say, of all the handwriting samples that I have looked at, about 10,000 of them in the past 25 years, this one closely approximates and relates to the handwriting of known pedophiles.”
Based on Lehew’s pedophile profile, Karr’s writing style displays several of the hallmarks of a child molester.
“Triangles or figure eights in the lower zone, retracing, leading in from below the baseline, these are all behaviors that have been observed in convicted pedophiles,” Lehew said. “He (Karr) has the tendency — he scored high on the pedophile chart.”
And Lehew is not just some self-styled expert. According to the story, he is a member of the American Board of Forensic Examiners and teaches questioned document courses at Handwriting University. He has also appeared numerous times in both state and federal court and is "certified by the Department of Public Safety to teach questioned document examination to law enforcement throughout Texas."
I could add an editorial comment here, but it hardly seems worth the effort. I will simply refer readers back to Donald Kennedy's Science editorial (see August 19th post), in which he asked whether "Forensic Science is an Oxymoron." The answer, clearly, is sometimes yes!
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I read the story regarding Handwriting Expertise and wish to clarify a few important differences between mainstream forensic document examiners and those who claim to be FDEs, but lack the two-year formal training program.
There are two groups of FDEs, one has been labeled by the academia as "Osbornians" and the second I assume are labeled "non-Osbornians". In theory, both groups rely upon much published research including Mr. Osborn's book. The difference between the groups center on training and a belief that personality traits can be revealed through one's handwriting. I will address the issue of training first.
The examiners considered "mainstream" are members of organizations such as ASQDE or the QD Section of AAFS (as well as regional organizations) which require a formal two-year training program. The recognized independent certifying body, the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (not the organization listed by Mr.Lehew) also requires the formal training program as a criteria for seeking certification. The formal training program is considered of such import it is one of the many published guidelines in the ASTM, Standard E2388-05.
Mainstream FDEs do not claim nor believe that handwriting reveals personality characteristics. If any mainstream FDE reported or testified to a submitted writer's personality (such as a propensity towards pedophilia for example), the individual would face ethical charges from the mainstream organizations such as ABFDE, ASQDE, QD Section of AAFS, and regional organizations, for example, SAFDE and SWAFDE. As a discipline, mainstream FDEs do not believe personality traits can be determined, or even hinted at, in a person's handwriting. Mr. Lehew, and a few of the other FDEs who are not mainstream obviously believe personality can be determined from handwriting. The position of mainstream FDEs is that there is no scientific basis for such a claim.
In closing, the forensic document examination discipline has undergone numerous Daubert challenges and attacks from critics. For the mainstream community, these challenges made the discipline move forward in establishing guidelines and offer documented proof that it uses established examination methodologies (refer to published ASTM guidelines), relies upon progressive research, and peer review. Therefore, the challenges were actually a healthy event to occur to this forensic science. However, the challenges and criticisms missed what I believe should have been the focus....i.e., the courts allowing individuals who appear legitimate and trained as an expert on their CV, but, actually know as much or less than the laymen on the jury. In this country, those who practice forensic document examination even though they lack the formal training period, and even individuals whose claim to fame includes working a career as forgery/fraud detectives have been allowed to testify as qualified forensic document examiners.
This is a judge's call and all the mainstream examiners can do is to educate those involved in the judicial system to assist them in determining the difference. How does one tell the difference?
The first step is to check the information provided on the expert's CV. Contact the listed organizations to find out if the individual possesses the credential he/she claims. A second step is to educate yourself as to the difference between the mainstream FDEs and those who lack formal training. Third, investigate and seek the qualifications of membership or certification of the organizations listed by the expert.
I would hope we all are seeking the same objective, that justice is served and those who are innocent are not convicted. It has been a travesty of justice by those opposing the admittance of forensic document examination
of "lumping" the FDEs who successfully completed formal training with those who lack training or trained at home (reading books and articles) into one group. The presence of the Lehew article is an example of this "lumping". Justice and the furtherance of forensic science would be better served by the legal community educating itself to the specific disciplines and to not disregard facts that those who oppose a discipline may find inconvenient.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide input.
Jan Seaman Kelly
Posted by: Jan Kelly | Sep 5, 2006 9:20:10 AM
I am a member of the 'mainstream' community referred to in the previous comment. It's important to remember that in the field of Forensic Document Examination, as in any field of endeavor, there are individuals with varying levels of training and experience.
I would caution all to follow Ms. Kelly's advice and look carefully at the background of anyone who claims to be an expert in any field, especially before using that person as a representative of an entire community.
Posted by: Randy E. Gibson | Sep 12, 2006 8:55:14 AM
I think that Jan Seaman Kelly has provided a clear description of the appropriately qualified forensic document. I would only add that in virtually every profession there are practioners who are competent and those who are not, most definitely including document examiners, practicing attorneys and, yes, law professors.
I was contacted by CNN, and two other media outlets and asked to comment on the Ramsey case and Mr. Karr with respect to writing issues. Each of these outlets or programs wanted an immediate, "quick" review of the writing and then an on camera interview. My response was that to offer a cursory opinion on a matter involving a homocide would be inappropriate.
Of course the television and print news media often disregard logic, on occassion, and will obtain comment from virtually anyone they get get to offer it. Based on the quotes noted in the previous post, I leave it to you to decide what happened in this instance.
Posted by: John Paul Osborn | Sep 12, 2006 9:17:06 AM