Two days after a 7-year-old girl disappeared from her Canton apartment complex in 2011, a handwritten note was taped to the complex’s trash compactor inscribed with a chilling message: “She’s in the trash can.”
Handwriting analysis on the note, coupled with other evidence, eventually helped Cherokee County authorities secure a guilty plea from apartment groundskeeper Ryan Brunn in the sexual assault and killing of Jorelys Rivera — a case that made national news.
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But experts say that the long-established crime-solving tool of handwriting comparison, which came into use more than a century ago, is going the way of snail mail and cursive penmanship. As a result, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation decided last week to eliminate its Handwriting Analysis Unit, which had been operating for 20 years.
The unit was temporarily suspended last June to allow GBI analysts time to get up to speed on their accreditation. But on May 31, the GBI permanently closed the unit, which provided services for local law enforcement agencies that are investigating forgeries, fraudulent documents, suicide notes, threatening letters, bank robbery demand notes and other questioned documents. Those agencies will now have to use private vendors.
“While eliminating handwriting analysis from the laboratory was not an easy decision, it is the best decision to ensure our available resources are targeted in the most appropriate manner to address the largest number and most critical types of analysis for criminal justice in Georgia,” wrote George Herrin, Jr.. deputy director of the GBI Division of Forensic Sciences, in an operations bulletin.
Of the two scientists who remained in the unit at the start of this year, one resigned to work for another lab and the other has been retrained to work on tire and shoe impression analysis, according to Sherry Lang, spokeswoman for the GBI.
The decision to shutter the unit means 171 pending document analysis requests will be sent back to the police departments who submitted them. But so far, the decision has not created a big backlash.
Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said he understands the GBI is trying to trim costs. However, he said the state may find it more expensive to outsource these cases than to work them in-house. He’s also concerned some cases won’t get prosecuted because counties don’t have the resources to pay for testing.
“We’re still going to have cases where we have to have that type of analysis done,” Spahos said. “It certainly could mean some cases that cannot be adequately investigated aren’t prosecuted.”
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Law enforcement agencies are being told to consult a list of private experts, with the caveat that the GBI cannot endorse the vendors’ results or services.
One private vendor in Woodstock, Farrell C. Shiver, said he charges a $1,000 retainer fee plus $200 per hour. He charges an additional $1,600 a day to testify in court. Shiver is doubtful local governments will be able to afford it.
“I don’t think it’s advisable to do away with [the handwriting analysis unit],” said Shiver, a retired document examiner from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Fort Gillem.
Several state and local crime laboratories throughout the United States have already stopped providing document analysis.
But at least one state has since reversed course.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement eliminated its Questioned Document unit in 2000, only to restore it four years later because the cost of outsourcing exceeded the cost to run an in-house unit.
While the unit was defunct, police in Florida stopped investigating some cases because of the hefty prices charged by private labs, said Karen Nobles, a senior crime laboratory analyst who heads the state’s Questioned Document unit. Nobles said citizens were also being defrauded by unqualified vendors when they hired their own document experts.
Don Mikko, crime lab director for Atlanta Police Department, said he may look into hiring in-house document examiners if he begins to see a need. But he has not yet assessed how many cases involving documents the department currently handles.
“I know it serves a purpose and I believe in that field,” Mikko said. “It’s something we at the APD are going to have to discuss.”