The Murderer Wore Serifs

Typeface designers live with the permanent possibility of encountering their work at unexpected moments. Your old college now uses a font that you designed; in a movie, whose story takes place before you were born, your typefaces are used for prop newspapers and storefronts; the intimidating signs that scold you in public places now address you in your own handwriting. These odd social dislocations have lately been compounded by an additional weirdness, the phenomenon of the literate non-specialist. There are now celebrities and politicians who know fonts by name, so off-duty type designers run an increasing risk of hearing their typefaces mentioned by talk-show hosts or newscasters — to say nothing of seatmates on long airline flights, or anyone desperate for conversation at a family funeral.

None of these strangenesses prepared me for learning this morning that in The Scarpetta Factor, a crime novel by Patricia Cornwell, there is a plot point that revolves around our Gotham typeface. The font first makes an appearance on page 400, when it’s name-checked by an FBI document specialist during the delivery of an expert opinion, but it returns on page 415 for a two-page discussion about the typography of a suspicious package. “Gotham is popular,” says the computer-whiz niece of our sleuth, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. “It’s supposed to suggest all the right things if you want to influence someone into taking you or your product or a political candidate or maybe some type of research seriously.” Our clients have always known as much; we can only assume that one of them is the murderer. —JH

H&Co Crime-Fighting Division

It was not a dark, stormy night at the H&Co offices, and she was not a dame in a red dress who spelled trouble with a capital T. It was last Friday afternoon, and the caller was Bill Bastone, founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, with a question about forensic typography.

The story begins with last week’s report by the Los Angeles Times that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated by associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs. The Times appears to have relied heavily on a set of FBI reports — 302s, in the argot — which cannot be found in the FBI’s own files. This morning, The Smoking Gun suggests that these may be the work of an accomplished document forger named James Sabatino, who conducted his hoax from within the walls of the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania.

We’re not experts in forensic typography or document authentication, but were able to point TSG’s specialists toward one subtle typographic clue. To untrained eyes including ours, the three 302s look like genuine bureaucratic dross: form elements are typeset in a proportionally-spaced font that appears to be Times Roman, and the body of each document is filled in with a typewriter. (The occasional overstruck letter, as well as some very erratic line endings, suggest a typewriter rather than a word processor; never mind that the Bureau stopped using typewriters “about 30 years ago,” according to an FBI supervisor.)

But a telltale gaffe appears at the top of one document, in which the date is rendered in the proportionally-spaced font. The “advance width” of the periods are demonstrably narrower than that of the numbers around them (typewriter periods are famously aloof from their neighbors), suggesting that at least this part of the document was prepared digitally — but only this part of the document, and only this one document from the set of three. The Smoking Gun has all three documents online: compare them here, here, and here. You owe me, Diddy. —JH

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