by Joelle Steele
When Grandpa John died, his heirs were startled to find that there were two handwritten Wills, the most recent one leaving the majority of his large estate to his old poker buddy, Harry. No one believed that their beloved grandfather could really write such a Will, leaving Harry with almost everything, and them, his own flesh and blood, with next to nothing. As you can probably guess, this dispute will probably end up being a matter for the court to decide when the heirs contest the second Will.
Cases involving the legitimacy of legal documents are the stuff of which court dockets are clogged. Is that really Aunt Mabel's signature? Was father's Will signed under duress? Did the suspect being held in custody write that kidnap note? Did the company bookkeeper forge those checks? These questions and others like them must be answered by handwriting experts in order to prove or disprove legal claims involving the disposition of financial and other matters.
The expert who compares known, legitimate signatures and handwriting with suspect or questioned documents is a specialized handwriting analyst known as a graphoanalyst or a document examiner. In addition to knowing all the fine points of handwriting, these individuals are trained in both courtroom protocol and in the use of a variety of testing procedures involving the latest forensic technology.
Before analysis or testing of any kind can begin, the handwriting analyst must first obtain known, authentic samples of handwriting for comparison. Known documents, also called standards or exemplars, are selected carefully for use in contrast with a questioned item. Without them, a suspect document cannot be authenticated. Graphoanalysts usually look for known documents which are similar in content, format, and wording to the questioned one. For example, known bank checks are usually compared with questioned ones written around the same time period. Known specimens of handwriting can take the form of such official items as marriage licenses, police records, welfare forms, voting registrations, employment and rental applications, military records, bank signature cards, tax returns, etc., some of which may necessarily be subpoenaed.
If there is a criminal suspect, the handwriting analyst will probably obtain a sample of that suspect's handwriting by dictating something for the individual to write, using the same kind of writing instrument and paper as that used in the questioned document. In cases of suspected forgery, this same process is used with the original writer whenever possible. This creates two very valuable reference documents to be used when making comparisons of the known and questioned ones.
Once the graphoanalyst has all the needed handwriting specimens, the detailed process of authentication can begin. Before analyzing the handwriting itself, a battery of preliminary tests may be performed, if and as necessary, to check for such things as erasures, changes in ink, age of paper, secondary imprints, and any forms of alteration to the physical document. These tests include highly sophisticated processes such as infrared, ultraviolet, and visible filter viewing, infrared luminescence and ultraviolet fluorescence, oblique lighting, electrostatic detection apparatus, and heat, the latter usually performed at the very last and only to double-check the previous tests since the process permanently alters the document.
It is after any preliminary tests are run that the analysis of the handwriting begins. The study of handwriting characteristics is very old, dating back to the ancient Chinese. Over the centuries hundreds of handwriting characteristics or features have been identified. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that handwriting became identified along with speech, gait, and facial actions as an expressive movement. This came as a result of a study of the "graphomotor" process, the motor activity of the muscles of the fingers, hands, wrists, and forearm working either independently or together to create handwriting.
The graphomotor process determines the subtle details or features of a person's handwriting which a handwriting analyst must identify. Everyone's handwriting is completely unique in its size, shape of letters, spacing, slant, etc., and the combination of those characteristics. Even though we all start out learning to write — print or cursive — by copying from the same letter models, human bodies all work so differently that no two children ever copy any given letter in exactly the same way. For example, one child may exert more pressure than another, one may slant more to the left, one may exhibit a shaky script, and yet another may write very slowly, making tiny, meticulously formed letters.
By the time a child becomes a teenager, he or she has also added a few "personality" characteristics such as small hooks at the end of certain letters, loops in a's and o's, t's crossed at a certain angle, i's dotted with circles or dashes, etc. These idiosyncratic features combined with the original differences that occurred when the child first began copying letters, result in a highly unique system and style of handwriting for each individual. And, that handwriting style becomes an automatic, habitual, and unconscious process in which mental and physical abilities are joined to create words on paper.
This automatic handwriting pattern is so incredibly unique that it is almost impossible for a person to disguise their own handwriting or for any other person to duplicate someone else's handwriting exactly, although an expert forger may come very close. But, since handwriting is mostly an unconscious process, even the most skillful forger cannot exactly imitate another person's handwriting without inadvertently including some of his or her own automatic, unconscious, or idiosyncratic handwriting features. If the forger's own slant, pen pressure, letter connections, proportions, etc., are very unique, then the forgery is more easily detectable.
The graphoanalyst first examines the known and questioned documents to determine that there is only one writer of each, after which a comparative analysis is made to see if the two writers are one in the same or if they are two different people. If the writers are two different people, there is a forger at work.
There are basically two kinds of forgeries: "simulated" or "freehand" forgery, and tracings. Simulated forgeries are "drawn" or "copied" while looking at an original. These are the hardest kinds of forgery to detect as most forgers who use this technique are quite skilled at it. And, if the original writer has a variable signature, i.e., one which looks significantly different each time they write it, the simulated forgery becomes even harder to detect. But, that does not make this forgery technique foolproof. On the contrary, under close examination by an expert, pen hesitations, tremors, or uneven pressure can and do show up.
Standard tracing involves the use of a blank sheet of paper held over the original handwriting in front of a light, and then tracing over the signature. Carbon tracing uses an original on top, a carbon in the middle, and a blank page below. The signature is etched from the original onto the carbon and filled in. Tracings are more easily detectable because the pressure exerted usually varies considerably and there are normally rather obvious hesitations of the pen. Also, the very fine subtleties of strokes such as small hooks, knots, or dash-like i-dots, are usually lost using this technique.
From time to time a handwriting expert is asked to verify the authenticity of an old document as being the handwriting of a particular person, frequently a famous individual whose writing is itself quite valuable. In these cases, the primary scientific tests are first used to determine the age of the paper and ink. But, old paper and ink can be used by a forger, particularly if the forger lived during the time of the original writer. In such cases, the text is first analyzed for language, style, and terminology before the handwriting itself is examined.
Forgeries are not the only thing a graphoanalyst must uncover. The deliberately disguised handwriting of a kidnapper, blackmailer, or bank robber must often be examined and compared with that of a suspect being held in custody. In these cases, the writer has usually attempted to alter his or her own handwriting by increasing or decreasing the size of the letters, exaggerating the slant, exerting heavier pressure, adopting some stylistic trait such as looped t's or unusual capitals, or any number of other changes. As with a forger, the writer will inevitably retain many of his or her automatic and unconscious handwriting features which will distinguish the handwriting as uniquely his or her own. A close examination of the writer's true handwriting contrasted with the disguised specimen can determine whether or not the two were written by the same person.
When a case hinging on a questioned document goes to trial, the graphoanalyst is called as an expert witness and must testify to the authenticity of a document. He or she begins by describing the methods used to arrive at the conclusion and then presents an illustrative comparison chart for the court and jury to examine. The chart is usually a photograph of the compared writings in an enlarged microscopic view with even the most minute handwriting features clearly pointed out and labeled. Some handwriting experts also give out 8x10 copies of the chart to the jury and other court members.
The final decision as to whether a signature or handwriting is authentic is often determined using mathematics and probability theory. This is done using formulas based on the number of features found in a given number of letters within a writing sample. These formulas eventually break down into an odds ratio such as 1:368,349,225,981, translated as one chance in 368,349,225,981 that the writer of the suspect document could possess the exact same handwriting characteristics as those of the original writer. In this example, the theory of handwriting uniqueness would be proved since it is so unlikely that any two writer's could possess so many of the exact same handwriting characteristics. Therefore, both the questioned and suspect documents were likely written by the same person and the questioned document was not a forgery.
His family can only guess whether or not Grandpa John wrote that second Will. But, a trained graphoanalyst will use scientific means and methods to determine the authenticity of that document. Only then will his loved ones know for sure if Grandpa John's last wishes were his own or possibly those of his old pal Harry.
This article last updated: 02/16/2012.