POSTED 14 JULY 2005
What do words mean?
As they sift through the aftermath of a crime, forensic scientists might long for some solid DNA samples, a videotape of the crime, or even a few juicy, tell-tale maggots, but they have to work with whatever evidence they can find. And often, that means words on paper.
Whether it comes in the form of a forged check, a ransom note, or a rewritten will, the human desire to get something for nothing is a boon to questioned document examiners. These experts have a bag of tricks for extracting information from words on paper: They examine paper and ink, the pen or machine that laid down the ink, and handwriting, wording, even punctuation.
In 1996, Gerald Brown, an Oregon document examiner, told us about clues hidden inside word choice. Textual analysis is most useful, he said, when the best evidence in a case is written, as when the Unabomber issued his "manifesto." Before you dismiss this "psycholinguistics" as pseudoscience, remember that the Unabomber's brother recognized that unique writing style, and tipped the authorities, who arrested Theodore Kaczynski in 1996.
Analysis of wording is also handy when the only people who know the truth vehemently disagree, as often happens in sexual assault cases. Brown pointed out that if a woman complainant continues to refer to herself and the alleged assailant as "we" after describing the incident, this "indicates a closer relationship. Someone would use 'we' describing events leading up to the assault, and then would change" to something harsher. Deceptive statements also tend to be short, vague, and scanty on details, he told us, perhaps because liars are uninventive, or are loathe to give details they may have to remember in another interview.
Content analysts can even concern punctuation. In 2005, Brown described a recent case: somebody had mailed letters to Company X and one of its clients that defamed the company's incoming president. After comparing the anonymous letters to known letters from company files, Brown identified the sender as an ex-X executive. "He was upset. He only got $20-million in severance pay," Brown deadpanned.
English errors fingered the vengeful ex-exec, Brown says. "We have been able to identify him beyond a reasonable doubt, based on peculiar punctuation and use of language, phrases." Although the man has not confessed, "the odds against it being the same person are almost infinitesimal," Brown says. "It was obvious, because we have known letters, and unknowns, and they have the same errors."
For evidence, is handwriting handy?
Is handwriting unique? Forensic experts have long thought so, but not until 2002 did anyone publish a convincing study. Sargur Srihari, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, looked at 1,500 U.S. handwriting samples. Through computer analysis of 10 characteristics in the scrawls, the researchers established that it was possible "to determine the writer with a high degree of confidence."
But not always, says Jane Lewis, a document examiner with the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory in Milwaukee. The ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case "was not naturally written, so when it was submitted to the state crime lab, the document examiner wrote a qualified opinion that eliminated Mr. Ramsey, but could not eliminate Mrs. Ramsey." When a writer tries to disguise the writing, or the evidence is damaged, it may be impossible to identify the writer, Lewis explained.
Far more controversial is the notion that handwriting reveals personality. Can your scribbles uncover curious crannies of your character or perfidious parts of the psyche? (Slow, Dave. The readers don't know what you did with that axe, but they are reading ... very ... carefully ...).
Brown said letter shapes, viewed through what he calls "form variance analysis," can be revealing. "If you're recalling the truth, you are writing from your mind and your writing flows. But if your subconscious knows you are about to lie, there are slight physiological changes that affect your writing, in the slant, or the spacing, or the pressure."
The writing of Ted Bundy, the most destructive serial killer in U.S. history, showed resentment and a deeply negative trait, according to Brown. The little break at the bottom of the "d" is the "only trait in handwriting analysis that always represents a 'negative' influence in the personality." Brown says he saw the same gap in the writing of Milwaukee cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. A person with that handwriting trait "could rationalize any sort of action," he said.
Still, Brown does not claim he could have fingered Bundy as a killer just by examining his handwriting at random. Nor does he favor routine screening for handwriting, even though probably the most common use of handwriting analysis is screening before employment. "When people say [based on handwriting] you can predict that somebody is going to be a certain way, I'm skeptical of that."
Is this science?
Few English-language studies of handwriting analysis have been performed, and even fewer -- if any -- have gained credence with scientists, Brown notes. "To be accepted, they need to be validated, determined to be reliable. That's where the weakness is -- studies are not repeated, and if you don't repeat them, they are not going to be accepted, no matter how accurate they are." At this point, he says, handwriting analysis -- like the analysis of word choice -- is not scientific enough to withstand most challenges in court.
Others are harsher. Criminologist Lawrence Kobilinski of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for example, denies that handwriting evinces personality. "I think that's all crap, myself: If somebody writes very small, they are stingy." For her part, Lewis decries graphology as "little more than superstition."
But beyond word choice and handwriting, physical science can say a lot about what was going on while a document was produced, Kobilinsky says. "There are document examiners who go through an apprenticeship, who are very careful in drawing conclusions, looking at paper, ink, pencil. Is it typing, dot-matrix or laser printing, these are all looked at scientifically. Has the writing been altered or forged? Did it occur at a later date than indicated?"
Taking the photo to the shop
Like other forensic scientists questioned, document examiner -- call them docu-docs -- have benefited from high technology. Ultraviolet light can restore erasures, while radiocarbon dating can show the age of a piece of paper. Lewis uses multi-spectrum light sources to show if two black inks contain different dyes, indicating that a document has been altered.
Photoshop software is even being used to emphasize images on damaged documents, Lewis told us, noting that the technique is only valid if each step is documented, so the defense can duplicate the procedure. "You can recover writing from a document that has been sitting in the rain, burned, or wadded up... you can do quite a bit with image enhancement."
She is not talking about convictions based on Photoshop-powered hallucinations, but rather using software to show hidden details, much as fingerprint examiners can bring out "latent" prints. "The goal is not to add to the images; many times it's a matter of increasing contrast, to see something we could not see. We don't want to change documents into something they are not."
High-tech is nice, but Renee Martin, a New Jersey document examiner, told us in 1996 that simpler is better: "The human eye and intellect will usually do the job. The tried and true approach is best." Martin got started 40 years ago because detecting a forgery was so simple. While working as a handwriting analyst, she says, "somebody asked me to determine whether a document had been forged, and I saw that a number had been added. It took me two seconds, and it was the fastest $25 I had ever earned in my life."
What does Martin look for? In the case of wills and other documents signed by the infirm elderly, she observes that "they have difficulty maintaining control of the writing instrument; they struggle to write as they always wrote. This shows up in the writing. But somebody forging has complete control of the instrument, and that shows up in letter formation, letter spacing, breaks in the writing."
Inattention to this kind of detail tripped up the German magazine Stern, which in 1983 was duped into buying the supposed diaries of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Among other problems, the publisher ignored the steady, firm handwriting: Hitler's hand declined along with his health in his later years.
Once you know what to look for and have genuine writing from the same period in the person's life, detecting forgery is usually pretty simple, Martin says, even without a microscope. "It's amazing what people think they can get away with."
Get away with murder in our forensic bibliography!
Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive