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Policing Anonymity

NCJ Number
Donald W. Foster
Date Published
December 2001
12 pages
This paper proposes some guidelines for the proper handling of an anonymous questioned document (QD) from the moment police become involved to the closing arguments at trial; suggestions are offered for reforms in the obtaining of writing samples by identified suspects.
The author draws on a variety of questioned documents, (QDs) both literary and criminal, to illustrate the kinds of information that can be gleaned from an anonymous text. The language used by an unknown author may help investigators to establish the writer's age, gender, ethnicity, level of education, professional training, and ideology. Often, there is enough linguistic and textual evidence in a QD to establish the author's identity. When calling for scholarly assistance with a QD, police detectives should be prepared to provide the expert with an exact facsimile of critical documents, along with such additional materials as may be available and pertinent. Police contacts should avoid saying anything that could influence the expert's opinion. In cases that involve critical documents of unknown authorship, a qualified expert can assist police with every step of the investigative process. Police may ask suspects to complete a supervised writing exemplar so that handwriting analysts can compare the penmanship of various suspects with that exhibited in the QD. This paper provides detailed instructions for obtaining these samples of handwriting. Guidance is also provided for collecting various documents that may provide valuable information on the authorship of the QD. The concluding section of this paper discusses the admissibility in court of linguistic evidence in a criminal prosecution, with attention to how such evidence was admitted in the Unabomber case, which was a legal benchmark regarding the admissibility of linguistic evidence in a criminal trial. 16 references