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Questioned Document Examination: Handwriting Analysis
Questioned document examination is the forensic discipline in which written or printed materials, pertaining to an investigation, are examined to gather evidence. Questioned document is a flexible term that can be used for items like: notes, contracts, wills, checks, and letters. One major aspect of questioned document examination is the analysis of handwritten markings. A document examiner uses training and experience to analyze and compare the handwriting of the questioned document with other known authentic examples to look for any evidence that can be used to help the investigation. For many years, document experts have stated that no two people’s handwriting can be exactly alike. I will discuss the science behind the technique that document examiners use in analyzing handwriting, how it is regarded in the National Academy of Science’s Forensic Science report, the strengths and weaknesses of handwriting analysis, and what the future holds for this science.
The base for the science of handwriting analysis is the idea that every person in the world has a unique way of writing. The two main characteristics of a person’s handwriting can be broken up into general style characteristics and individual characteristics.
General style characteristics originate from the environment in which you first learned how to write. Where and when you attended school, the teacher you had, the writing books you practiced in, how keen you were to learn to write, all these variables attribute to your general style characteristics. For example, learning writing is different in different countries; it varies for generations as new methods of teaching are found. The most popular handwriting systems taught are the Palmer Method and the Zaner-Bolser Method. The Palmer Method was first introduced in 1880; the method was brought about the keep up with the new invention of the type writer. It emphasized a cursive, plain but quick style; it used arm muscles rather than just finger movements. Although the Palmer Method grew quickly in popularity it was eventually supplanted by the Zaner-Bloser Method in 1895. The Zaner-Bloser method focused on teaching what we call printing before learning how to write cursive. Students in the same writing class that have just started learning writing tend to have very similar styles, with a few differences due to skills in copying letters. Even so, as time goes on, these general style characteristics only become the foundation of our writing. As initial writing skills improve, writing becomes a subconscious act, unique patterns begin to form which will be known as individual characteristics.
Individual characteristics are variations in writing attributes such as angularity, slope, speed, pressure, letter and word spacings, relative dimensions of letters, connections, pen movement, writing skill, and finger dexterity. It is simple to see that, even though two individuals may share a few attributes there is a very low, if not zero, possibility that they would share the exact same individual characteristics.
In addition to both of these characteristics other factors should be considered when analyzing handwriting. Different writing tools will have different variations and create differences in line quality. Line quality is a result of the type of writing tool used as well as the pressure exerted, and the flow of the script. Arrangement is another variation to look at; spacing, alignment, formatting, and margins are all results of personal habit. Lastly, looking at the content itself, the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and phraseology individualizes the writer further.
Chapter 5 of the National Academy of Science’s report, ‘Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward”, evaluates the use of questioned document examination. The committee directly states the following regarding forensic handwriting comparisons:
“The scientific basis for handwriting comparisons needs to be strengthened. Recent studies have increased our understanding of the individuality and consistency of handwriting and computer studies and suggest that there may be a scientific basis for handwriting comparison… Although there has been only limited research to quantify the reliability and replicability of the practices used by trained document examiners, the committee agrees that there may be some value in handwriting analysis.” (166-167, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward)
The National Academy Science sees the value in the current implementation of handwriting analysis in forensic science. The science as it is now is strong, and individualizing a writer for a questioned document is almost guaranteed when using an expert document examiner with the proper resources. I believe more studies should be conducted regarding handwriting analysis. Document examiners keep stating that handwriting can be as unique as a fingerprint, yet many do not fully support that same view. The science should continue and with more research the science beneath handwriting analysis will become concrete, reliable, and replicable.
I have already discussed how unique a person’s handwriting can be. Document examiners say it is almost as unique as a fingerprint. The sheer number of variations within a person’s handwriting means that uniqueness is almost guaranteed. Variations in speed, slope, angularity, pressure, spacings, margins, and formatting all help identify the writer. Not just variations of the handwriting but the habits of the writer, the tools used, the paper itself, even the content all come together to further individualize the document. In society we already see the benefits of handwriting to identify people, look at signatures for checks, wills, credit cards, drivers licenses, such important aspects of our lives are authenticated by our own signature, our own handwriting.
After many years of writing, the mechanics of writing become so basic to us that the activity of writing becomes subconscious. We think about the content not the way we form letters. Thus, our writing, like any other basic activity, can become caught up in our current mindset and mental state. Think about the differences between writing a letter your grandma and writing a threatening letter to a government official. Your frame of mind is directly related to the content you are writing, and as a by-product the way you write is subconsciously varied. Assuming the document examiner has already established a ‘normal’ style of writing for a person, seeing the change of writing style on a different document; it is simple to understand the writer’s frame of mind. Writing attributes like speed, angularity, and line quality all get affected in a predictable way. Knowing the mindset a writer was in can help define the type of document they were writing and even allude to the motive behind the document.
There are sometimes rare situations where the handwriting of two individuals are very similar in comparison to one another. In this case, we can take a look at the natural variations of each writer to further identify a writer’s handwriting. Natural variations come from the fact that no two examples of writing from one writer are exactly identical. Handwriting is a complex activity using a combination of coordination between your fingers, hand, and arm. Having these slight variations in your writing is natural, and an inherent part of writing. Take a look at signatures; even though you have one signature, signing something twice does not give you two identical signatures; one is slightly different than the other. Variations between two writers will have many more differences than the natural variations within one writer. A document examiner can use the basis of natural variations to discover signature forgeries when one is an exact tracing of another. In addition to this, a document examiner can analyze the types of variations and even notice the differences between formal and informal writing.
The age of a writer can be a hard characteristic to learn just by going of a person’s writing. Yet, finding out the age of younger writers is possible. General style characteristics, as discussed earlier, depend on when and where you were taught how to write. Individual characteristics only become visible after practicing writing for many years to follow, so the only variations seen in students learning writing is based on their ability to copy. Thus, finding a written document where there are very few individual characteristics, it can be said that the writer could be young. Document examiners also state that general style characteristics can be used to narrow a writer down to the exact type of copybook they used while learning how to write.
Like many other approaches to positively identify a person, handwriting analysis requires previous records be available. These documents will need to be authenticated first, meaning that it must be known that they were written by a specific writer. If there are no previous written documents available, or if the documents cannot be authenticated then handwriting analysis is not useful. Without any documents to compare document examiners cannot state whether a suspect wrote a specific document. Even if authentic documents are available, document examiners need a lot of viable authenticated examples or exemplars to find out the ‘normal’ style of writing for a suspect. This comprehensive list of exemplars gives document examiners a complete picture of how a person writes with all their habits and natural variations. At times, document examiners are given questioned writings that only contain a few words, which are unhelpful in discovering a writer’s style. Another problem arises when the only authenticated exemplars available are much older than the questioned document. As mentioned before, individual characteristics come with time, and the writer’s style could have changed from when the exemplar was written and when the questioned document was written.
If no authenticated exemplars are available, writing samples can be requested from the suspect voluntarily or by the court. This may seem like strength rather than a weakness, but it has some serious flaws. Requested documents can cause the writer to become nervous or concentrate much harder than they usually do resulting in uncharacteristic variations between the requested writing style and their own normal style. Requesting documents can also result in a poor range of variation in the writing. With most of the samples written in one sitting, the handwriting style will be more static than what is expected. Of course, these written samples may be consciously altered by the writer to disguise their actual writing style. Document examiners have certain steps in place to minimize this, such as making the writer comfortable, dictating the text, and making the writer make multiple copies. Having a suspect create multiple copies of one document can cause them to slip up if they are attempting to hide their true writing style. However, even with all these precautions in place it is still possible that the true writing style of the writer is not revealed.
The writing style of a writer can also change depending on the tools used. This is yet another reason why it is necessary to gather as many authenticated exemplars as possible. Various tools used such as writing implements and various surfaces impact the attributes of style in difference ways. Not only does it vary due to the different types of material used but also due to the writer’s skills with specific materials. Just think of the difference writing with a pen on paper and writing with a marker on whiteboard. Both might have the same content, yet they require completely different writing styles. These styles need to be matched directly to authenticated exemplars. That is why when document examiners request exemplars to be written they specify the same writing implement and surface as was used with the questioned document. If they are unable to acquire an exemplar using the same materials there is no way they can properly compare the exemplar to the questioned document.
An obvious disadvantage of handwriting analysis is getting a questioned document that is faulty. By faulty I mean that the writing on the document has been disguised to hide the writing style of the writer. Before the document examiner has had a chance to compare the questioned document to any exemplars the examination has already failed. There are very few ways to find out if the writer of the questioned document has disguised their writing. Changing or disguising your writing style is very simple if there are only a few short phrases that are written on the questioned document. Any more than that a document examiner can pick up on mistakes that will inevitably happen the more you write. If the questioned document is in fact just a few short phrases, and the writing style has been disguised the analysis has already failed before it had even begun.
Another weakness occurs when the writer of the questioned document wrote the document while impaired. Your writing style is heavily impacted when you use alcohol or drugs. The effects of these impairments on your writing style can be so adverse that the normal writing style is completely corrupted. With no way of knowing whether the writer was impaired at the time of writing, we can have a similar problem as we did when the writing was disguised. Results have shown that writing while under the effect of alcohol results in changes attributes such as word length, spacing, alignment, angularity, number of tapered ends as well as tremors that appear through the writing. There is also a significant correlation between the extents these attributes are varied and the amount of alcohol consumed. Impairment does not necessarily have to deal with drugs or alcohol; it can also be used to talk about fatigue. Although, in this case writing styles impaired by fatigue will not vary as much as with harsher impairments.
The final weakness and possibly the most obvious is the fact that your writing style is independent of your background and physical appearance. Handwriting analysis helps you match the handwriting of two documents. If you know someone wrote one, and it matches to other document then you can safely say that that person wrote both documents. You cannot use handwriting analysis to identify a potential suspect when you have none. Handwriting analysis is used to remove suspects from questioning by showing a lack of comparison between the questioned document style and the suspects style, or providing evidence against the suspect by finding a match between both styles. Unlike DNA, handwriting analysis is unable to identify a suspect when there is none to start with.
As the world becomes more digital it would seem like the need for handwriting analysis is dropping. Although, there are still a substantial amount of questioned documents that are handwritten there are also more questioned documents that are created using word processors or other means of communication. Yet, handwriting analysis has a means of keeping up. With inventions like digital signatures, and touch screens being brought about, new research on the variation of writing styles is being conducted. These new technologies change the way we write, just like changing from pen to marker, and paper to whiteboard our writing styles adjust. As our writing styles adjust so must the methods used in handwriting analysis.
Currently the majority of problems related to handwriting analysis in the court stem from the need to better show comparisons using quantitative methods. Several changes are already underway to improve the science of handwriting analysis. Researchers are continuing to study the frequency of handwriting characteristics in large populations in order to assess the rarity of certain attributes. Document examiners are working together with statisticians to further strengthen the science, and make it more quantitative. Image capture devices used in handwriting analysis are continually being improved, producing clearer, high resolution images for document examiners to analyze. In addition to the capture devices, computer software and automated systems for handwriting analysis will continue to be developed with the aim of being general use for document examiners. With more research and funding the science behind handwriting analysis will only be enhanced and improved upon.
The science behind handwriting analysis has been developed over many years. Using general style characteristics along with individual characteristics it is highly possible to identify a writer based given the required materials. That being said, there are still plenty of ways where handwriting analysis falls short. The National Academy of Science sees the potential in handwriting analysis, but still feels more work is needed to be done in the science to make it more reliable. Research is already underway to find ways to improve to science to make it more reliable in court using quantitative methods. With the improvements in the technology used in document analysis the science will only be improved in years to come.
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