AN INTRODUCTION TO FORENSIC HANDWRITING ANALYSIS
By Professor Francisco Viñals Carrera and Professor María Luz Puente Balsells
We define forensic handwriting analysis as the sum of graphological techniques employed to identify the author of handwriting.
Graphic features are a manifestation of energy, and as such they may be evaluated quantitatively and qualitatively, in terms of: intensity, the strength of the driving force (pressure); liveliness, the dynamism of that energy (speed); tone, the fluctuations in the course of life (direction); life expansion (dimension); order and control over energetic force (order); consistency and regularity (continuity), etc. Graphic projective tests allow us to look at that graphic X-ray of the human psyche which is writing, bringing to light these parameters (order, dimension, pressure, shape, speed, direction, slope and continuity), their variability and the unique characteristics known as type-gestures. Taken as a whole, they present us with something which is inherent and unique to the individual, allowing for identification that goes beyond the physiological perspective and takes in medicine, psychology, sociology, criminology and law.
Naturally, since the only goal of forensic handwriting analysis is to identify the author of the handwriting , not is correct to apply graphopsychology (personality portrait ), except in specific cases at the request of the judge.
In any case, the most constructive option is to sharpen one’s analysis via the use of the most advanced procedures in order to correctly identify the author of the graphism. This is what is important. Handwriting analysis should not become fossilised; like all techniques, it demands receptiveness, flexibility and constant development.
The job of an expert examiner
For socio-historical reasons, the verification of holographic last wills is required increasingly less nowadays; nevertheless, the services of expert handwriting analysts are more and more in demand for verifying contracts, bank items and other commercial and industrial documents; for taking part in an interdisciplinary way in matters relating to patents and trademarks; and for criminal matters, in analysing writings and documents to determine if there has been forgery and in investigating anonymous writings. Clearly, a strong academic background is essential.
1. Kinds of alteration
The expert handwriting analysts will have to deal with a variety of situations:
1a). The handwriting has not been modified:
- the comparison of signatures and reliable writings
- genuine holographic last wills
- the identification of authentic letters from amongst writings by different people
1b). The handwriting has indeed been modified:
- anonymous writings
Normally it is the signature which is forged, as it is an indispensable element of the document.
2. Kinds of court proceedings
2a). Civil (trial courts, family court):
Declaratory Rulings (e.g., doubts about handwriting related to claims of up to approx. 3,000 euros, evictions)
Small debts proceedings (e.g., proof of authorship of signatures or handwriting in claims for documented debts payable up to approx. 30,000 euros)
Ordinary proceedings (e.g., challenging handwriting in claims starting from 3,000 euros, or of incalculable value, handwritten documents relating to unfair competition, the right to freedom from injury to reputation, honour or feeling, the right to privacy, etc.)
Actions for enforcement (e.g., challenging signatures in commercial contracts supervised by exchange brokers)
Small debts proceedings involving negotiable instruments (e.g., attribution or denial of signatures on bills of exchange or cheques)
Entering holographic last wills into record (e.g., verifying that the document was indeed written by the deceased)
Matrimonial proceedings (e.g., doubts about signatures in private separation agreements. Analysis of notes. Psychological analysis of handwriting when there are doubts concerning possible harm to the children)
Proceedings concerning an individual’s competence (e.g., alterations in handwriting that indicate incapacity: handwriting analysis joined with psychological analysis of handwriting)
2b). Criminal (First-instance criminal courts, superior courts)
Trials for minor offences/committal proceedings/oral proceedings (e.g., suspected forgery of signatures or documents). Special mention must be made of counterfeiting (coins, bills and credit cards), as the courts usually turn directly to the laboratories of the scientific police, who have the specific knowledge and the best technical tools.
Criminal courts also often need a psychological analysis of letters or notes written by people who have disappeared or assumedly committed suicide.
Proceedings involving libel and slander (e.g., anonymous writings)
2c). Industrial (employment tribunals)
Dismissal (e.g., challenging signatures in contracts, full and final settlements, accounting documents, etc.)
The steps to be followed in applying the graphonomic method
When engaging in a graphonomic study, it is of utmost importance for beginners to follow each one of the parameters scrupulously (until one has developed the ability to perform this synthesis automatically), after analysing the graphic aspects and sub-aspects (Vels 1991, 1993, 1994 and 2000), evaluating the dominants (the strongest or most important graphic traits) and the subdominants (of less importance), as well as the type-gestures (unique characteristics or inherent details) of each aspect or genus.
We must emphasise that when carrying out this process, writing is not to be seen as a finished product, but rather as a process, a wave in motion. The writer is giving expression to dynamic thoughts: it is activity, movement forward; there is no stasis (albeit there may be “slips”, but these will also be taken into account and compared to what is written).
Expert analysts who have seen and classified many letters no longer need to examine each of the graphic aspects and sub-aspects individually (order, dimension, pressure, shape, speed, orientation, continuity) – rather, they have incorporated them all into their subconscious and can carry out a rapid synthesis, extracting the dominants (those most noticeable traits of each aspect or genus), the subdominants (complementary traits) and the type-gestures or individual traits and inherent details (specific ways of beginning or ending, the special configuration of some letters, ascenders, descenders, crossbars, numbers, strokes or other secondary traits), and of special importance, an analysts can do what no machine can: perceive mobility, that special way of moving, spontaneous rhythm. Analysts who are especially receptive and who have gained experience can even come to discern artistic aspects of the writing, such as the harmony of balance obtained between opposing forces within an overall mobility.
Analysts who immediately spot salient features of indubitable or genuine writing (we could call it that which is separated most out of each module, or that which is most different from the school model) will go on to test and verify that, indeed, it is not a question of coincidence or optical illusions. They analyse flow, the characteristics of pressure (especially to see if there are small, repetitive irregularities in the tension or calibre), dimension, proportion, distance (fluctuation constants), formal realisation with special attention to links (how the letters are joined together), whether orientation is to the right or to the left (although as far as orientation is concerned, not too much attention should be paid to slant except when it is exaggerated in “crooked” oscillations – something similar happens with the direction of the line). It is important as well to notice abreaction (verification of constants in the opening and closing of loops) and, especially, the frequency of repetition of the details of each letter or stroke or secondary sign (repetition of personal details constitutes a genuine qualitative feature allowing for identification).
The expert graphologist knows as well that there are circumstances which may modify writing, such as excessive cold, tiredness, fear, pressure due to imminent danger, lack of eyesight, differences in what one is writing on or writing with, toxicity, illness, etc. These factors might be responsible for notable differences found in certain generic parameters (e.g., a reduction in size, cramped writing, a fall or descent in the horizontal line, etc.) when comparing a dubitable (questionable, dubious) sample of writing and an indubitable one (one whose authorship is considered beyond doubt). A good graphologist will know, however, how to extract the more qualitative or transcendent features of the writing in order to identify the individual traits. This is one of the reasons why graphology is considered the mother science of handwriting analysis; an expert analyst must have basic knowledge of physiological graphology, graphopathology, developmental graphology, graphopsychology and even emotional graphology.
Expert analysts often find themselves confronted with the task of identifying a minimal writing sample, or one where the writer has changed their usual way of writing due to any of the aforementioned circumstances. We shall be looking at some typical examples of assignments carried out on samples consisting of very simple elements, such as numbers or signs (where the type-gestures are important). We shall also see some other genuine writing samples where the author made no attempt to forge anything, and yet the analyst might wonder about the genuineness due to some of the alterations that can be perceived.
Getting into practical examples, it is normal to find ourselves faced with a case such as this one: the dubitable (questionable) signature is superimposed with a transparency over the indubitable one (the one whose authorship is not doubted). They are almost identical, which is suspect enough; but beyond that, we see that there is almost no difference in the calibre pressure of the strokes (the profiles are just as thick as the internal lines) and that there is no firmness – rather, the strokes are made in an insecure way, with many tiny tremors that indicate forced slowness. At the end of each stroke, there is evidence of the pen or writing instrument coming to a stop (calibres stained with ink, contact points, grooves, etc.) and instead of a direct connection there is “collage”. Or, when juxtaposed, no imaginary link can be established between the end and a beginning which would correspond to the writer’s normal way of linking; rather, the letters are “parked” without any coherent overall layout (the letters do not take each other into account – they are not parts of a whole). This is all the more obvious when the copy is a more dynamic sample of writing: the forger's lack of habit and an unsteady hand can contribute to this.
It is very important for analysts to be able to distinguish between alterations or tremors of a pathological nature and those signs of slowed movement which are due to the conscious restraint needed when thinking about the next movement to be made. Sometimes it is difficult to formulate an opinion when the author is quite old or suffers from Parkinson’s disease or some other degenerative illness, but a good knowledge of graphology can be enough to clearly distinguish between the “shaking” tremors caused by illness and a slowing down which is caused by the forger’s insecure and restrained use of the pen.
So, traced forgeries or those done by transmitted light are easy to spot as forgeries, but since they are so similar to the original, with no distinguishing characteristics, it will be difficult to find out who is responsible. In these cases (traced and light-transmitted forgeries), the analyst will have even more trouble formulating his opinion if the original is not to be found, or if the original was written by a person who writes slowly, clumsily or in a not very developed way. Or if when juxtaposing samples of writing, shape dominates movement completely. Or if the dubitable sample was written with ball-point pen and there are no traits from the previous drawing or mark.
On the other hand, forgeries made by practiced simulations can often be very similar to the genuine article, since the forger, thanks to repeated practice, has developed speed, which lends spontaneity to the writing and therefore a greater appearance of genuineness. Nevertheless, a thorough analysis will provide us with many traits belonging to the forger's own style of writing, meaning that it might be easier to identify them.
The forger must make an ongoing effort to modify their natural way of writing, leading to a progressively greater number of personal expressions as the writing becomes more dynamic, in keeping with the laws and principles formulated by classical graphologists. Nonetheless, we must not underestimate our enemy, as there are veritable artists of forgery out there, normally within important criminal organisations.
Note This summary has been taken from the book by the aforementioned authors: Pericia Caligráfica Judicial. Práctica, casos y modelos (translation: Forensic Handwriting Analysis: Practice, Examples and Models), Barcelona, Ed. Herder, 2001
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