Michigan's own Sherlock Holmes sleuths in a hightech crime lab
Lansing, Mich. — When the state of Michigan was presented with a 146-year-old stock certificate and a demand for a $13 million payment, it called on its own version of Sherlock Holmes to test the claim. After studying ink splotches on the back of the certificate and cancellation marks on the front, Leonard Speckin, the Michigan State Police department's expert on questioned documents, concluded the 1839 bond had never been issued to the public. A circuit court judge agreed and threw out the lawsuit seeking to redeem the $1,000 bond plus interest.
Mr. Speckin is a certified examiner of questioned documents -- wills, contracts, checks, and other written material whose authenticity is suspect. His area of expertise is a forensic science, along with fingerprinting, firearms and tool identification (ballistics), voice prints, serology (blood and fibers), and pathology. Speckin's specialty is the study and analysis of handwriting, inks, photocopies, typewritten documents, the reconstruction of burned and charred paper, and the dating of material.
``The job is basically very simple,'' Speckin says. ``We examine the evidence as it comes into the laboratory, report it out and testify in court as to our finding. The court is really the whole forum. It is before the jury that all this is decided.'' Speckin has testified as an expert witness hundreds of times, both for the prosecution and the defense.
In the case of the stock certificate, it was the close examination of marks on the back of the document that proved significant. Records showed the state had issued certificates 1 through 30 during the 1830s. The certificate's owners claimed their bond, No. 84, which had been in the family for 40 years, had also been issued and that the state owed them millions of dollars.
A comparison of the questioned bond with 10 unissued certificates still in the state archives, including No. 85, showed the document to be authentic, Speckin recalls. The question then became: Had stock certificate No. 84 ever been issued?
There were ink spots on the back of the bond resembling letters, but there were strange, semi-circular gaps in the pattern. Careful study showed the printing on the face of bond 85 matched the ink spots on the back of bond 84. The ink had leached from the front of one bond to the back of the one on top of it when they had been stored together for a long period of time,according to Speckin.
Such seepage from one page to another is called an ink offset, Speckin explains. The paper fiber absorbs the ink from the other page. ``You've probably seen this in old books, where you open the pages and the ink has transferred from one page to the other if they haven't been opened in years,'' he says.
The gaps in the pattern on the back of bond No. 84 matched the area where the state seal had been stamped on the face of the other certificate. The stamping of the seal had depressed the surface of bond No. 85 and, where it intersected the original printing, the ink had not transferred to the back of bond No. 84.
``We had two pieces of evidence, then, that this document had never been issued,'' Speckin says. Its numerical position, and the fact it ``had been stored for a great length of time with 85 in its proper position, one on top of another, back to front. That, then, showed that this document had somehow been spirited out of the archives and had not been issued or purchased by anyone.''
Originally a German major in college, Speckin joined the Michigan State Police force as a trooper 18 years ago. He underwent three years of training in the study of questioned documents before being certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners.
His work involves both the latest in high technology and basic, common-sense observation. One of the indispensable tools of his trade is the infrared camera, which serves as a means of differentiating types of inks, reading underwriting, and detecting alterations. Some inks absorb infrared light while others reflect it. ``If an ink absorbs infrared, you won't see it in the photograph. It will filter completely out,'' Speckin explains. ``If it reflects it, you'll see it in your photograph.'' If the ink can differentiate infrared light from regular light, it will show up in a photograph as an eerie glow.
By changing the filters used in the infrared process, some inks can be made to completely vanish from the photographed document, while others remain, providing a way to unmask alterations and reveal the original writing. A series of photos, using varying filters, can demonstrate just how an alteration was made.
Speckin holds up a check, the center of a recent dispute, that bears the figure $8,000. The signer insisted he made the check out for only $2,000. The recipient of the check had deposited the version written out for the larger amount. An infrared photograph eliminated an artfully applied layer of overwriting to reveal that, indeed, the check had originally been for $2,000. Using the infrared process, the alterations stand out in the photograph in bright, glowing shades, while the original lettering remains a dark black.
Other high-tech devices include the Electro-Static Detection Apparatus, a machine that uses electrically charged photographic film and a fine powder to re-create written documents from impressions left on underlying sheets of paper. Computers are used in conjunction with an electron-scanning microscope to store information and compare and enhance images, Speckin says. ``Within the next 15 years, computers are going to be a very main item in crime laboratories,'' even more so than they are now, he adds.
Handwriting analysis depends more on observation than fancy machinery. Of all the areas encompassed by questioned documents, ``handwriting is by far the most difficult to master,'' Speckin concedes. ``But it's the one that you also use the most.'' The approach to handwriting is simple, he continues. The same characteristics that make everyone individuals -- size, education, family background -- are reflected in handwriting, causing each person to write differently than the next. These individual characteristics are called handwriting habits.
The careful study and inspection of individual characteristics allows Speckin to detect handwritten forgeries. The most common means of forgery is to attempt to freehand copy or trace a signature, often by holding an original up to the light and writing over it. But the results are usually unsatisfactory because the pressure used to hold the pen is different and the forgery comes out looking stilted and artificial.
The complexities in a signature are important for preventing a forgery, Speckin explains, and that is why ``when people sign their names they should form all the letters. Don't have an unintelligible scrawl,'' which is easier to copy.