Failed tests stop GBI from doing handwriting analysis

The Georgia State Crime Lab has stopped providing handwriting comparison analysis for criminal cases until the scientists in that unit pass an assessment required by a national accrediting agency.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation -- which oversees the lab -- told prosecutors and law enforcement agencies throughout the state that the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors had determined that GBI scientists who do handwriting comparisons did not meet the "requirements for our quality system." There are two questions on the handwriting assessment. All three scientists missed one of the questions -- the same one, according to GBI spokesman John Bankhead.

The scientists will undergo more training and retake the test, GBI Director Vernon Keenan said Monday.

Bankhead and several prosecutors said no convictions or pending criminal cases are affected by the suspension of the service. Private labs and the FBI are available to provide analysis, if needed. George Herrin, who runs the GBI lab, asked prosecutors not to submit evidence for handwriting analysis for now.

"The suspension will remain in effect until the quality measures are resolved," Keenan said.

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Handwriting analysis has dwindled in importance to prosecutors over the years. Tests for DNA and firearms matching and drug and alcohol screenings are far more critical to criminal prosecutions. Handwriting analysis is most often useful in forgery cases.

County prosecutors surveyed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution say the GBI's moratorium on doing handwriting analysis won't affect their work.

"It's not a huge impact in that we may only have one or two cases a year where we would utilize that from the GBI," said Eric Burton, spokesman for the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office. "We do have the option to outsource that."

Clayton County has a handwriting expert on its solicitor staff, said Clayton District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson. Cobb County Solicitor Barry Morgan said many times witnesses -- instead of handwriting analysis findings -- are used to prosecute cases.

"With as busy as those GBI folks are, if we have an eyewitness who can testify we wouldn't ask for a handwriting analysis," Morgan said.

Bankhead said there are 180 cases pending in the handwriting analysis unit. Since the assessment was made in December, a scientist with 15 years experience left the Crime Lab. One of the two scientists left to examine documents has been on the job for two years and the second one for one year. When the lab was fully staffed with three scientists, the unit is capable of completing about 15 cases a month, Bankhead said.

Accreditation of the lab is not required but enhances the credibility of the testimony of any scientists who do the analysis, according to Bankhead and John Neuner, accreditation program manager with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

But Neuner said many labs nationwide are putting fewer resources into handwriting analysis.

"It's dying across the country," Neuner said. "I think the reason it's dying is a matter of resources. There just isn't as much demand in an electronic world. It's dying just because laboratories can better utilize their [staff and financial] resources for other things. The FBI has historically provided services that are specialized that the local labs cannot support. The FBI still has that service if and when it's needed."

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