Standards Needed to Analyze Handwriting

By Douglas P. Lyle

A handwriting examiner needs several standards, or writing samples, to get a feel for a person’s writing style and determine whether that person wrote the questioned document. Complicating matters, standards may have been written with a different instrument and under different circumstances. So comparing a questioned document to a known writing sample on a wall may be impossible.

If no usable nonrequested standards (samples that already exist and are known to be authentic) are available, the examiner asks the suspected writer to provide a writing sample, using a similar writing instrument on similar paper, so that the examiner can at least establish a requested standard.

Nonrequested writings provide several advantages. The most important is that nonrequested samples reveal the writer’s true writing habits and may reveal words and phrases that the writer frequently uses, which can be strong evidence for or against the writer. For example, old letters or notes may contain phrases that are identical to the ones used in a ransom note. The major disadvantage of nonrequested standards or samples is that they also must be authenticated. If they can’t be linked directly to the writer, they don’t have much value to the examiner.

Handwriting styles aren’t static throughout our lives, so examiners try to obtain writing samples from documents written by suspected authors at about the same time as the questioned document. Say that an examiner is asked to determine whether a 20-year-old, handwritten will is authentic and was indeed written by the supposed author.

The examiner needs to see other documents written by the supposed author from 20 years ago because those documents reflect his style at or near the time the will was prepared better than documents written just weeks before the examination.

The major advantage of requested writing samples is that no one questions their authenticity. The examiner actually watches the person write. The examiner also can dictate exactly what the individual writes, even a passage taken directly from the questioned document, so that the examiner can compare the samples word for word.

If the document contains information that the examiner wants to withhold from the suspect or that is sensitive to an ongoing investigation, the person providing the sample can be asked to write sentences that are quite different but include many words and phrases that were used in the questioned document.

Several disadvantages accompany requested writing samples. Providing a writing sample makes some people nervous or causes them to concentrate too much on the writing process, which can lead to uncharacteristic changes in the way they normally write and sign their names. As a result, minor changes can be introduced that make an accurate comparison much more difficult.

Suspects may also try to disguise their writing style on purpose, not wanting the handwriting sample to match the writing on a forged will, ransom note, or other questioned document. Unfortunately, these attempts to alter writing styles are sometimes successful, making getting a match difficult or impossible.

One way around this problem is to have the suspect write a great deal of material — not just a passage or a page, but several pages. Although altering your style may be fairly easy when writing short passages, the more you write, the more your conscious alterations give way to your natural writing style.

Dictating the same material to the writer several times is another trick examiners use to ferret out those who are attempting to disguise their handwriting style. With each attempt, the suspect is likely to use different devices. A good examiner then finds the hidden style elements and the devices that the suspect used to disguise them within the requested writing before making a comparison.

Investigators don’t have to worry about a suspect refusing to offer a handwriting sample. Although you may be thinking that providing a handwriting sample violates the suspect’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate or testify against oneself, the United States Supreme Court decided in Gilbert v. California that handwriting is part of identifying physical characteristics that are not protected under the Fifth Amendment.

Furthermore, in the case of the United States v. Mara, the high court also decided that providing a handwriting sample doesn’t violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. So the court can order a suspect to produce handwriting standards even after a refusal.