The history of handwriting analysis to assess personality, today called graphology, could be said to extend back to Confucius, who wrote: "Beware of the man whose writing sways like a reed in the wind." The first extensive work on handwriting analysis dates to 1622, when an Italian physician named Camillo Baldi published A Method to Recognize the Nature and Quality of a Writer from His Letters. In this book, Baldi stated the fundamental premise that continues to guide handwriting analysis today: "It is obvious that all persons write in their own peculiar way . . . Characteristic forms . . . cannot be truly imitated by anybody else." In other words, like snowflakes, every person's writing is unique.
Over the following three centuries, Italian, French, and German investigators attempted to place the fledgling science of graphology on a firmer scientific footing. In particular, they linked graphology with Gestalt psychology, maintaining that handwriting originates in the brain and therefore betrays characteristics of the writer's mental makeup, even when done with a writing implement held in the other hand, the mouth, or the toes. They believed that the components of writing, such as pressure, speed, interruptions, variations in emphasis, the length and angle of upstrokes and downstrokes, and the upward or downward slope of writing on the paper, can be quantitatively measured and used to form a psychological profile of the writer.
In the context of modern forensic science, experts sharply distinguish graphology from true handwriting analysis. Graphology, scientists attest, is a pseudoscience, a fun but not scientifically valid parlor game, like palm reading, although many corporations take it seriously enough to hire graphology experts to profile job candidates. While graphology is not regarded as forensic evidence, it is still often used in combination with other techniques to profile criminals to aid authorities in their investigations. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, graphology may have helped authorities track down George Metesky, the "Mad Bomber" of New York City. During the investigation of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old girl found dead in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado, home in 1996, various experts closely examined the three-page, handwritten ransom note found in the home, attempting to provide a psychological profile of the note's writer and even to identify the killer. In 2002, graphologists had some success profiling the "D.C. sniper" who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, but skeptics argue that the authorities resorted to graphology out of desperation in trying to break the case.
More commonly, forensic scientists use handwriting analysis for two more limited and defined purposes. One is to authenticate documents such as records, diaries, wills, and signatures. In 1983, for example, a German publisher claimed to have in its possession a collection of sixty-two notebooks that were the handwritten diaries of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Handwriting analysts compared the writing in the diaries with known samples of Hitler's handwriting and concluded that the diaries were authentic. Later analysis of the paper and ink, though, showed that Hitler could not have written them, and investigation revealed that they were the work of a clever forger who was able to imitate Hitler's handwriting (so successfully that one of the known samples used by the handwriting experts was itself a forgery by the same person). A similar case involved the 1991 claim by a man from Liverpool, England, that he had in his possession a sixty-three-page diary and that its author, one James Mayrick, was the infamous Jack the Ripper, who brutally murdered five London prostitutes in 1888. While analysis of the paper and ink showed that the diary was not written with modern materials, handwriting analysts concluded that it was a fake, noting that most of the writing was done in just a few sittings and that some of the flourishes in the handwriting were added later, likely in an effort to make the document look more authentic.
The second purpose for which handwriting analysis is used is to link a specimen of handwriting with a crime suspect by comparing the suspect's handwriting with, for example, the handwriting on a ransom note or other communication linked to a crime. The purpose is not to profile the writer but to determine if the same hand produced a document known to have been written by the suspect, called an exemplar or standard, and the document in question. One of the first noteworthy cases in which handwriting analysis of this type was used was the 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the infant son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. During the investigation, Lindbergh received fourteen notes from the kidnapper. Handwriting analysis later linked these notes to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the crime.
Handwriting analysts try to maintain a strict protocol with criminal suspects. They do not show the suspect the questioned document. They do not tell the suspect how to spell certain words or how to use punctuation. The suspect is to use writing materials similar to those of the questioned document. The dictated text should in some respects match the content of the questioned document so that the spelling and handwriting of certain words and phrases can be compared. The text the suspect is to write out should be dictated at least three times. And a witness should observe the procedure.
In either type of casehether authenticating documents or investigating criminal suspectsandwriting analysts begin from the premise that while most people learn to write using a certain system, such as the Palmer or Zaner-Blosser system, they develop idiosyncrasies in the way they form letters and words. These idiosyncrasies become fixed and remain constant over time, even when the person is attempting to disguise his or her writing.
For comparison, analysts generally focus on four categories of factors that define a person's writing. The first is form: the shape of letters, their proportion, slant, lines, angles, retracing, connection, and curves. One writer, for example, might begin a t at the top and make a single straight line down, while another may begin at the bottom and form a loop. Similarly, a writer may form the vertical line of a d with an upstroke, then retrace downward to finish the letter, while another writer may form a loop rather than retracing. One person's capital A might be round and fat, another's thin and angular. One person's cross on a t may slope up, another's may be horizontal, and yet another's may slope downward. The second category is line quality, which results from the pressure exerted and the type of writing instrument and includes the continuity and flow of the writing. Thus, pauses can be discerned, and these pauses tend to take place in predictable patterns. The third category is arrangement, which includes spacing, alignment, formatting, and punctuation. Document examiners also look at a final category, content, which includes spelling, phrasing, grammar, sentence formation, and the like.
The central question is whether handwriting analysis is a valid forensic technique. The Hitler Diaries showed that even trained document examiners can be fooled, but for three decades it was regarded as valid and reliable evidence in court under the so-called Frye standard, which said that judges had to accept any form of expert testimony, including that of handwriting analysts, based on techniques generally accepted by scientists. The existence of such groups as the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners suggest that a community of scientists generally accepted the premises and techniques of handwriting analysis. Further, the U.S. Secret Service and the German law enforcement agency, the Bundeskriminalamt, maintain that their computer databases, the Forensic Information System for Handwriting (FISH), prove that among a large sample of writers, no two share the same combination of handwriting characteristics.
Since 1993, though, the admissibility of handwriting analysis has come under intense scrutiny. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, created the stricter Daubert standard, which gives federal judges under the Federal Rules of Evidence more discretion in admitting or excluding scientific testimony. Specifically, it requires judges to determine whether a theory or technique has been tested, whether it has been submitted to peer review, whether standards exist for applying the technique, and what its error rate is.
One federal ruling dealt a severe blow to the admissibility of handwriting analysis. In United States v. Saelee (2001), a federal court ruled that handwriting analysis had never been adequately tested, raising "serious questions about the reliability of methods currently in use" (162 F.Supp.2d 1097 [D.Alaska 2001]). The court went on to say that "the technique of comparing known writings with questioned documents appears to be entirely subjective and entirely lacking in controlling standards." In later cases, however, such as United States v. Prime (220 F.Supp.2d 1203 [W.D. Wash., 2002]), the courts examined the issue and ruled that such testimony was admissible under the Daubert standard.
SEE ALSO Criminal profiling; Document forgery; Expert witnesses; Federal Rules of Evidence; Frye standard; Hitler Diaries; Howard Hughes' will; Lindbergh kidnapping and murder; Pseudoscience and forensics; Questioned documents.
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