Handwriting Examiners in the Digital Age

Forensic handwriting examiners can only compare writing of the same type. In this case, only the second known sample can be compared to the questioned handwriting. Credit: NIST

From National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) News
Published June 3, 2021


As people write less by hand, will handwriting examination become irrelevant?

NIST considers the answer to that question in a recent news article. NIST suggests the answer is no, but only if the field of forensic handwriting examination changes to keep up with the times.

The article focuses on some of the recommendations from the NIST updated report, Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach. It recommends more research to estimate error rates for the field which will allow juries and others to consider the potential for error when weighing an examiner’s testimony.

The report also recommends that experts avoid testifying in absolute terms or saying that an individual has written something to the exclusion of all other writers. Instead, experts should report their findings in terms of relative probabilities and degrees of certainty.

Melissa Taylor, the NIST human factors expert who led the group of authors, said that the report provides the forensic handwriting community with a road map for staying relevant. But the threat of irrelevance doesn’t come only from the decline in handwriting. Part of the challenge, she says, arises from the field of forensic science itself.

“There is a big push toward greater reliability and more rigorous research in forensic science,” said Taylor, whose research is aimed at reducing errors and improving job performance in handwriting examination and other forensic disciplines, including fingerprints and DNA. “To stay relevant, the field of handwriting examination will have to change with the times.”

To read the full article, visit https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2021/06/handwriting-examiners-digital-age.

For more information about CSAFE’s handwriting analysis research, visit https://forensicstats.org/handwriting-analysis/.

The CSAFE handwriting team has developed an open-source software tool called handwriter. This R package utilizes a variety of functions to identify letters and features from handwritten documents. Learn more at https://github.com/CSAFE-ISU/handwriter.

DNA Mixture Interpretations: A Q&A With NIST’s John Butler

John Butler with DNA mixture data. Credit: NIST

From Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Published July 28, 2021


Whether from skin cells, saliva, semen or blood, DNA from a crime scene is often collected and tested in a lab to see if a suspect’s DNA is likely a contributor to that sample or not. But every DNA sample tells a different story, and some samples are easier to interpret than others. The simplest type of DNA profile to interpret is one where the sample includes hundreds of cells from only one person. When two or more people have contributed to a sample, it’s called a DNA mixture. Some mixtures are so complicated that their stories remain a mystery even to the best forensic DNA experts.

John Butler, a Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and a team of authors have recently completed a draft scientific foundation review of the different methods forensic laboratories use to interpret DNA mixtures. The team urged for more interlaboratory participation in studies to demonstrate consistency in methods and the technology used in DNA mixture interpretation, as well as a need for sharing data publicly. In this interview with NIST’s Christina Reed, Butler — who has over 30 years of experience with DNA profiling, is the author of five books on the subject, and has led training workshops on interpreting DNA mixtures — answers some basic questions about the importance of this fast-growing field of forensic science.

Read the full interview at https://www.nist.gov/blogs/taking-measure/dna-mixture-interpretations-qa-nists-john-butler.

Download DNA Mixture Interpretation: A Scientific Foundation Review at https://www.nist.gov/dna-mixture-interpretation-nist-scientific-foundation-review.

NIST held a webinar on DNA mixtures on July 21, 2021. The webinar was recorded and will be made available for on-demand viewing approximately 10 days after the event. For more information, visit https://www.nist.gov/news-events/events/2021/07/webinar-dna-mixtures-nist-scientific-foundation-review.