Exploring Unintended Consequences: The Erosion of Institutional Knowledge of Investigative Techniques as Correlated to the Availability of Expertise

Source: Kevin P. Kulbacki, MSFS , Questioned Documents Section Secretary
Justice Talks

Forensics is a business, and like any business, leaders are faced with tough choices on where to spend their resources — money, time, and workforce. When faced with decisions, do you invest in the latest instrumentation or continuing education? Do you give investigators more time to train in collecting DNA or fingerprints? Over the past 40 years, laboratory leaders have faced even tougher decisions, often having to make decisions on whether to maintain or close entire sections of the laboratory.

While Forensic Document Examination is one of the older forensic disciplines, it has generally been one of the first sections of laboratories to be considered for the chopping block, frequently due to lower caseloads, lengthy training times, and difficulties in attracting qualified candidates. When faced with these difficulties, many laboratories have made the difficult choice to close the section. However, as difficult as it is to decide to close a section, it is all too common that inadequate consideration is given to one of the most significant consequences of that decision — the erosion of institutional knowledge of investigative techniques.

What happens in one of these jurisdictions when a case requiring a forensic discipline unavailable locally comes up? It is natural to think that another larger government forensic laboratory may take the case; however, even the largest laboratories have case-acceptance criteria and are further limited by their resources. On the contrary, there are private laboratories; however, they may be cost-prohibitive and, without pre-established contracts, may be further delayed by lengthy government procurement processes. While all this is sorted out, a key problem remains — the case needs to be investigated, and any associated crime scenes need to be processed for evidence.

This problem was highlighted in a 2023 case in which a series of handwritten notes threatening shootings were found on various bathroom stall walls of a high school over a period of weeks. The importance of a thorough, prompt investigation in such a case cannot be understated, with significant potential implications for both false positive and false negative outcomes. The state and local forensic laboratories did not have Forensic Document Examination services.

A school resource officer conducted the investigation. The threatening notes were photographed with a cell phone — with no scales, uneven lighting, at odd angles to the walls, and saved in a compressed file format. A suspect was identified using CCTV footage of the hallways outside the bathrooms from the days the notes were found. The school resource officer compared the threatening notes to the handwriting on a homework assignment for the suspect and decided they had the right person. The student, a minor, was removed from school, arrested, and charged with a felony. No effort was made by law enforcement to have the writings looked at by a Forensic Document Examiner, nor was any effort made to identify other suspects with CCTV on the days leading up to the discovery of each threatening note.

Time-sensitive investigations such as these highlight the importance of institutional knowledge of investigative techniques in ensuring justice for all. When an agency has internal access to forensic disciplines, an expert may be a phone call away to answer questions from an investigator about how to properly photograph evidence on a wall or what known specimens to collect for comparison. When an agency no longer has immediate access to expertise, it becomes even more critical that their investigators be fully trained and current on what those other forensic disciplines could do, or else there is a significant risk that evidence will be missed or cases not investigated to their fullest. Agency leaders should identify qualified forensic practitioners capable of leading training and examining evidence well in advance rather than waiting for a case to arise and being caught flat-footed.

In the above-referenced case, the student's parents retained a Forensic Document Examiner to examine the evidence to determine, if possible, whether or not the student was actually the writer. Based on a significant quantity of known writings, it was determined that it was probable that the student did not write the threatening notes in question. While the school district allowed the student to return to school upon receiving those findings, the case proceeded to trial, where a directed verdict was reached in favor of the defense.


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