Newcomers to this blog are advised to begin with the first two posts, Just the Facts, Ma'am and Case Solved, which explain in very general terms why I believe I've solved this case. Some important questions are answered in the following post, Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, Misdirections. After that feel free to browse whatever topics might interest you (see blog archive).

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Monday, October 15, 2012

The "Experts" See Patsy - Part 3: Gideon Epstein

The documents analyzed by Cina Wong were supplied by "New York Lawyer" Darnay Hoffman, an odd character who inserted himself into the case out of a deep seated and unshakeable conviction that Patsy Ramsey and only Patsy Ramsey could have written the notorious "ransom" note. To prove his point, he hired a team of forensic documentation specialists (aka "experts") whose job very clearly was to confirm his theory. Which of course they did. All used the same set of totally inadequate exemplars as those initially used by Wong -- the ones displayed on my previous post, plus two others, also very brief, that I haven't been able to get hold of. Other than the longhand letters signed by her, no one has ever to my knowledge confirmed that any of these were actually written by Patsy -- and there is good reason to suppose that at least one -- "Rainbow Fish Players" -- was not (it looks totally different from all the others).

Fast forward to 2002. A man named Robert Christian Wolf has been publicly named as a possible suspect by John Ramsey and is persuaded to sue the Ramseys for libel. His lawyer is -- guess who -- Darnay Hoffman. The basis of the lawsuit is that the Ramseys have willfully libeled Wolf because they know very well who wrote the note: Patsy. Hoffman's strategy is to bypass the DA's office, which has taken the case nowhere, by using a civil suit to prove that Patsy Ramsey murdered her daughter, and wrote the note to cover her crime. To make his case, he calls on two members of his team of handwriting "experts," Cina Wong and a man named Gideon Epstein.

Unfortunately, a copy of Epstein's analysis isn't readily available, but we do have access to his deposition in this case, before presiding judge Julie Carnes, who ultimately rejected his findings. His testimony is both enlightening and entertaining, so let's take a look:

The first item on our agenda is Epstein's opinion of his colleague Cina Wong. Here he is being questioned on this matter by Ramsey attorney Lin Wood:

. . . if Judge Carnes asked you should she17permit Cina Wong to give expert opinion
18testimony about the authorship of the . . . ransom note found at the home
20of John and Patsy Ramsey in this case, what
21would you tell her?
22A.I would say that she may well be
23correct in her findings, but that she does not
24meet the standards of a forensic document
25examiner as accepted by the profession.

In other words, Epstein's opinion of his fellow "expert," Ms. Wong, is not very high. He in fact considers her unqualified.

Also interesting is Epstein's opinion of the initial set of "experts" who deemed it "unlikely" Patsy Ramsey could have written the note (though, unlike John, she was never "ruled out").
2 Q.Now, Mr. Epstein, what exactly is
3 your theory about how all these individuals,
4 Chet Ubowski, Leonard Speckin, Edwin Alford,
5 Lloyd Cunningham, Richard Dusick and Howard Rile,
6 got it wrong and you, sir, beginning in the
7 year 2000, almost four years after the murder in
8 this case, and without access to any original
9 handwriting of any party you analyzed, got it
11 A. Very well. First of all, I'd like
12to say that the field of forensic document
13examination in the United States is a very small
14profession . . . 
18Everyone knows everyone else. There
19are certain document examiners who . . . are looked upon by other
23examiners as leaders in their field.
. . . In this particular2 case I think the fact that Howard Rile and
3 Lloyd Cunningham, who became involved in this
4 case very early on, and who were retained by
5 the Ramsey family, coupled with the fact that
6 Lloyd -- that Howard Rile came out of the
7 Colorado bureau and knew the people in the
8 Colorado bureau, I believe that that connection
9 was very instrumental in the Colorado bureau
10coming to the conclusion that they did, because
11Howard Rile had come to the conclusion that he
13Lloyd Cunningham works very closely
14with Howard Rile and they were both on this
15case, and then it was a matter of chain of
16events, one document examiner after another
17refusing to go up against someone who they knew,
18someone who was large in the profession, for
19fear that they would be criticized for saying
20something that another examiner -- it's sort of
21like an ethics within the medical community,
22where one doctor protects the other doctor.
. . . when it came down to Dusick and it11came down to Speckin and it came down to
12Alford, by that time a number of well-known
13document examiners had already rendered
14conclusions, and I feel personally that the
15other examiners were simply afraid to state what
16they believed to be the truth, or that they
17simply didn't devote the necessary time. . .

6 And I just don't believe that some
7 of these people devoted the necessary amount of
8 time to the case to come up with the correct
9 conclusions, and I think they simply went along
10with what had been previously said because it
11was the most expedient thing to do. [my emphases]

Epstein's comments are especially notable because they cut two ways at once. His theory that one or two of these "experts" may have influenced all the others undercuts the unanimity of their decision to find Patsy Ramsey "unlikely," which suits his purpose very well. But he fails to realize that he is also, by the same token, undercutting their decision to "rule out" John Ramsey. Thus, if we assume he takes his own theory as seriously as he expects the judge to take it, we can only wonder why he showed no interest in examining John's exemplars as well as Patsy's.

In other words, if the decisions of this group were largely determined by a social dynamic, reinforced by expediency, then why take any of it seriously, why not simply start from scratch by studying exemplars penned by both leading suspects? Clearly, arriving at the truth was not the task Epstein set for himself. His task, defined by his employer Darnay Hoffman, was to "prove" Patsy Ramsey wrote the note, so that, despite all his huffing and puffing, is what he attempted to do. And that's all he attempted to do.

Equally enlightening is Epstein's testimony with regard to the handwriting of Hoffman's client, Chris Wolf:

8 A. . . . There
9 are some similarities between the handprinting in
10 the ransom note and the writing you submit as
11 that of Christian Wolf. However, there are also
12 similarities between my own handprinting and that
13 on the questioned note, if you disregard the
14 poor line quality. Similarities, while playing
15 a role in the process of examination and
16 comparison of writing, are not as significant as
17 fundamental or significant differences. Many
18 people share common handwriting characteristics
19 and even been some distinctive handwriting
20 characteristics. The proper weight must be
21 given to differences which cannot be accounted
22 for by natural variation of a single writer."

Again Epstein's testimony cuts both ways. When it comes to the handwriting of Mr. Wolf, similarities, even with regard to "distinctive handwriting characteristics," might not mean all that much -- and "fundamental or significant differences" must also be considered. Yet when it comes to Patsy Ramsey's handwriting, as studied by literally all Hoffman's "experts," similarities of any and all kinds must be diligently identified, regardless of whether or not any objective standards can be applied, and differences conveniently ignored -- or explained away as "obvious" attempts at disguise.

From the deposition we learn that Epstein was supplied with essentially the same examples, supposedly by Patsy, as those supplied by Hoffman to Cina Wong. One additional example is also mentioned:

12 I examined a two-page document which
13was a copy of an entry form for the 1996
14Lights of December parade bearing the known
15handwriting of -- attributed to Patsy Ramsey.

When asked what steps he had taken to confirm the authenticity of these documents, he responds as follows:

24A.They were submitted to Larry Zieglar
25as known writings, and I accepted them as known
1 writings.
2 Q.You did not independently seek to
3 verify that they were known writings of Patsy
4 Ramsey.
5 A.I did not.

Finally, after much questioning, Epstein is asked to state his conclusion:

20Q.What is your degree of certainty
21yourself as you sit here today that Patsy Ramsey
22wrote the note?
23A.I am absolutely certain that she
24wrote the note.
25Q.Is that 60 percent certain?
1 A.No, that's 100 percent certain.

Apparently, however, Epstein was either unwilling or unable to provide the court with any information regarding his methods or his reasons for arriving at such a definitive conclusion, and as a result, his findings were not accepted by Judge Carnes:
Given the contrary opinion of six other experts, whose ability to examine the documents was necessarily superior to Epstein's, and given Epstein's failure to explain the methodology by which he can make absolute pronouncements concerning the authorship of a document, this Court does not believe that a reasonable jury could conclude that Mrs. Ramsey was the author of the Ransom Note, solely on the basis of Epstein's professed opinion to that effect. In reaching this conclusion, the Court is aware that it is not permitted to make credibility judgments in ruling on summary judgment motions. For example, were there six eyewitnesses on one side of a question and one eyewitness on the other side, the Court would not take from a jury the factual question on which these witnesses were testifying. With regard to Epstein's testimony, however, the Court is not attempting to assess credibility. Mr. Epstein may sincerely believe that Mrs. Ramsey wrote the Note and the jury may well credit his sincerity. Nevertheless, no matter how earnest Epstein may be, the fact remains that he has not explained his basis for reaching absolute certainty in his conclusion and, accordingly, the weight and impact of his testimony would necessarily be less than the weight of the contrary testimony of six other experts.
Carne's conclusions have been regarded with deep dismay by many in the "Ramsey Did It" camp. In fact, she accepted Lou Smit's clearly flawed intruder theory at face value, and generally went along with the Ramsey team's version of what happened, concluding there was no evidence to associate either John or Patsy with the crime. Part of the problem was that Hoffman himself was called away at the last minute and thus unable to properly present his position, which was unfortunate to say the least.

Nevertheless, with respect to her treatment of the handwriting evidence, Judge Carnes' decision showed a remarkable degree of diligence in researching and interpreting the many problems associated with forensic document analysis, as expressed, for example, in the document I've quoted here. Since Epstein was unable to provide the court with evidence that his methods conformed to the scientific standards expressed in this document (the so-called Daubert standards), she had no choice but to reject his findings. I'll add that under no circumstances is "100% certainty" ever taken seriously as a conclusion by real scientists in any field, so one can only wonder where Epstein was coming from when he insisted on total certainty, with no possibility of error.

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