Handwriting analysis (Forensic Science)
The field of questioned document analysis, of which handwriting analysis is a subset, is one of the oldest disciplines in the field of forensic sciences. The practice of forgery is as old as written communication: Under the Code of Justinian in 539 c.e., Roman law contained rules for identifying and comparing handwriting. A questioned document is any document the authenticity of which is questioned, either entirely or partially. Questioned documents can include concert tickets, postage stamps, bus passes, and dollar bills. Expert handwriting examiners are concerned primarily with anything written by hand in questioned documents; they apply basic rules of document analysis and their own experience to distinguish real writing from forged.
During forensic handwriting analysis, samples of signatures may be compared, alterations and obliterations of documents may be scrutinized, and ink may be subjected to microscopic analysis. Document examiners may be asked to testify in disputes regarding written threats, unsigned letters, attempts to extort or defraud, contract disagreements, or identity theft. Many document examiners work for government agencies; others are in private practice, often providing their services to investigations of medical malpractice or insurance fraud. A document examiner may be called upon to verify a person’s signature on a sign-in sheet to prove or disprove that person’s claim to have been at a particular place at a...
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Handwriting Development (Forensic Science)
In the United States, children have traditionally been trained in whatever handwriting style is in favor when they are in elementary school. Depending on geographic location, children might be taught one of a variety of copybook styles of penmanship, such as Palmer or Zaner-Bloser. In the early days of learning to write, children focus attention on how to write the letters of the alphabet correctly. As schooling continues, these methods become increasingly automatic, and individuals’ writing begins to deviate from the standards originally learned as the focus of writing shifts toward what is being written and away from how it is written.
As the brain matures, an individual’s neuromuscular coordination and visual perceptions become unique to that person. By the late teenage years, a person’s handwriting has matured, but it has not stopped changing. As people progress through life and even through various emotional or physical upheavals, their handwriting changes as well, and sometimes not in subtle ways. Despite such long-term variations, a person’s handwriting retains features that identify its author.
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Collecting Samples (Forensic Science)
Before comparisons can be done, the handwriting examiner must have samples of known, standard writing—unquestioned samples—from the individual of interest. Good standards are essential for valid results.
As much as possible, the conditions under which the known standards are produced should duplicate the conditions under which the questioned material was written—with the same or similar writing instrument, in the same writing position and on the same kind of surface, and on the same type of paper (lined or not, same kind of stock). If the questioned material was written in cursive, the known standards must be written in cursive.
At least one of two kinds of writing standards are obtained: nonrequest and requested writing. Nonrequest writing is also known as spontaneous or undictated writing, and samples of requested writing are also known as dictated exemplars. Nonrequest writing is usually material written previously by the individual; such material is much more likely than requested writing to reveal the individual’s normal, unforced writing habits. As the writer was ignorant of the way the writing would eventually be used, conscious or unconscious attempts to alter, disguise, or even improve the writing are lacking. Nonrequest writing may be difficult to get authenticated for court, however. In addition, the examiner may not be able to obtain enough nonrequest writing for good comparison, and such...
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Comparison (Forensic Science)
Common features of handwriting, such as slant and letter formation, are class characteristics—attributes learned in grade school. Uncommon handwriting features are individual characteristics that are distinctive and peculiar to one person’s writing. Document examiners look beyond class characteristics as they use both vision and microscopy to compare questioned handwriting or signatures to known standards. Experienced examiners recognize common traits and refrain from making identifications from these; instead, examiners rely chiefly on individual characteristics.
Examiners inspect handwriting for minute details, looking at traits such as letter size; how letters are connected; how beginning and ending strokes are formed; height ratio of capital to small letters; spacing between letters, words, and lines; spacing on the page; skill level of the writing; and speed and pressure of the writing instrument on the page. They also observe execution—in general, does the writing in the known sample look natural or does it show characteristics lacking in the original? Experienced examiners can discern patterns in the consistent combination of less-common traits with more-common ones. When the questioned sample begins to diverge too much from the standards, it is likely false.
No two persons write exactly alike. It is also true, however, that no one person writes identically twice. People hold their pens or pencils at varying...
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Forgery Types (Forensic Science)
Generally, forgeries are freehand simulations, tracings, or normal-hand simulations. For freehand simulations to be done well, correct letter formations and height ratios must be written at the same speed and with the same pen pressure as in the original, and all at once. At the same time, the forger must suppress his or her own natural individual writing traits, which can be very difficult. If the forger concentrates on making letter formations like those in the original, the pen pressure will likely be different from and the speed will almost always be much slower than the original. If the forger concentrates instead on speed and pressure, letter formations and connecting strokes revert to the forger’s.
Even if the forger practices the to-be-forged writing, it is likely that very subtle details, such as line quality and placement of pen lifts, will diverge from the original. A signature that when genuine is illegible may suddenly when forged become legible, or it may appear hesitant or drawn instead of dashed off in a well-practiced manner. Microscopic examination of such a forged signature reveals“patching”—the retouching of a line or blunt starts and stops indicative of slow, concentrated copying. Examined competently, freehand simulations seldom have much chance of deceiving the examiner.
Forgeries involving tracings have their own shortcomings. A forger can use carbon paper or graphite to copy an original...
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Legal Challenges (Forensic Science)
Handwriting examination is not an exact science. The methods used by different experts vary, and training techniques differ as well. In 1989, a lawyer published an article that criticized the the use of expert handwriting examiners in court, stating that evidence was lacking to prove that document examiners perform any better than nonexperts and that the error rate of document examiners was high. Challenges to the validity of forensic handwriting analysis ensued, and one court ruled handwriting analysis inadmissible, calling the comparison of known writings with questioned ones entirely subjective and lacking standards.
Evidence to the contrary appeared, however. In a 1997 study of experts and nonexperts asked to identify handwriting, the error rate for the experts was 6.5 percent, whereas that for the nonexperts was 38.3 percent. The nonexperts had incorrectly matched documents made by different writers at almost six times the rate of the experts. In a 2001 study, the error rate of document examiners in determining false signatures was found to be less than 1 percent (0.49 percent), whereas that of nonexperts was 6.47 percent. In the same study, the rate at which experts declared genuine signatures false was 7.05 percent, and the error rate for nonexperts was 26.1 percent. A professor of computer science at a New York university reported that the writer of a sample could be determined correctly in 96 percent of fifteen...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Ellen, David. Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques. 3d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2006. Comprehensive text discusses many technical advances in the field. Intended for readers with some background in document examination.
James, Stuart H., and Jon J. Nordby, eds. Forensic Science: An Introduction to Scientific and Investigative Techniques. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2005. Provides an excellent overview for students of forensic science. Includes numerous real case studies.
Kelly, Jan Seaman, and Brian S. Lindblom, eds. Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2006. Thorough guide to the topic focuses on developments in forensic examination of written communications since 1982.
Morris, Ron N. Forensic Handwriting Identification: Fundamental Concepts and Principles. New York: Academic Press, 2000. Illustrated text useful for both students and practitioners includes discussion of physiological effects on writing.
Slyter, Steven A. Forensic Signature Examination. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1996. Brief volume offers a useful introduction to signature identification.
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Handwriting Analysis (World of Forensic Science)
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.