Handwriting analysis is a remarkable field imperative for putting hundreds of thousands of criminals behind bars every year. The practice catches offenders in the act using their written word, almost as unique as a fingerprint and as identifiable as DNA.
Handwriting analysis is very effective in pinning down kidnappers, bank robbers and even murderers. The subtle differences in loops, curves and lines in written letters and numbers- undetectable to the untrained eye- can disclose to an expert analyst insurmountable information about the writer.
Control comparisons determine the identifying similarities to confirm or disprove suspects. If you take a close look at the BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) Killer, having murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991 in and around the Wichita, KS area, it was testimony from a professional handwriting analysis that did him in. Having evaded police for 30 years, the murderer was finally tracked down.
His pitfall was internet technology ignorance. Having resurfaced in 2005 with the apparent intent to kill again, the BTK killer once again was reaching out to police. But this wasn’t the early nineties anymore; instead of handwritten letters, the BTK wanted to show he had advanced beyond this. Having sent a ‘text’ communication with police using a mailed floppy disk, the bottom immediately fell out.
The files on the floppy disk told the detectives everything they needed to land a suspect. It showed there were files saved by someone named Dennis and it had been used at the Christ Lutheran Church. Having been essentially handed this information, police almost immediately suspected Dennis Rader, president of the Christ Lutheran Church congregation.
Having blown his decades-long cover after making one of the most rudimentary mistakes, all investigators had to do was let the pieces fall into place. Fortunately, all the letters Rader had written local newspapers, since his reign of terror was underway in the mid-1970’s, were retained as evidence.
The letters Dennis sent to local newspapers and TV stations, as a means of taunting investigators. Experts were able to compare his writings and testify they were indeed made at the hand of Rader. His craving for media attention seemed one of his main motivations throughout the murder spree and, appropriately, the reason for his demise. The BTK killer was subsequently sentenced to nine life terms in prison.
Expert forensic handwriting analysts closely examine class characteristics from a writer’s writing system and their individual characteristics to identify criminals and verify document authenticity. Comparing known specimens written by an identified person, the “exemplar,” are judged against differences and similarities in similar words or letter combinations. There have been a number of criminals suspected, caught and convicted based on nothing more than a forensic handwriting analysis.
Jack the Ripper
Though never caught nor convicted, Jack the Ripper was supposedly found out in 2002 by one Patricia Cornwell. Having committed his murders in the 1880’s and having probably died toward the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century, there would be no conviction for some of the most notorious murders in modern history.
Regardless, a detailed analysis of handwriting identified the Ripper as artist Walter Sickert. An artist having painted countless disturbing and morbid portraits and landscapes- one even entitled “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”- Sickert was always a suspect. But having compared his found writings to the notes left at every crime scene by Jack himself, Cornwell determined a positive match. Sickert’s disturbing psychological profile was also very convincing.
An investigative reporter and novelist, Clifford Irving was a talented writer. In the early 1970’s, Irving expressed interest writing an “autobiography” on the eccentric life of millionaire, Howard Hughes. Yes you read that correctly; Irving wanted to write Howard Hughes’ autobiography (something people are supposed to write themselves).
Because Hughes was a complete recluse, not in the public eye whatsoever, Irving and a friend decided they could probably get away with the scam very easily. McGraw-Hill, Life magazine and Dell Publications had paid over $1 million to publish excerpts of the book. But a firm of handwriting experts, who originally botched an analysis, determined writing samples submitted for the autobiography draft were false. This, combined with a teleconference with Hughes himself, was enough to try and convict Irving and his cohorts for conspiracy to defraud through use of the mails.
Son of Sam
A handwritten letter left at a crime scene addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli brought down the Son of Sam Killer, who terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977. It revealed the name “Son of Sam” for the first time, expressed his disrespect toward the police and his intent to keep killing. But it also was valuable in profiling David Berkowitz and confirming he was the murderer. He was initially detained after his Ford Galaxy was confirmed in the area of a Son of Sam signature shooting.
The Lindbergh Kidnapping
After 20 month old Charles Lindbergh Jr was abducted in March of 1932, authorities tracked bills used to pay the ransom money to an area close to the Bruno Hauptmann residence. Though he denied everything, evidence suggested he was the kidnapper and he was subsequently convicted 2 ½ years later and executed in 1936. Combined with material used to build a makeshift ladder to commit the crime found in Hauptmann’s house, testimony from handwriting analysts was fundamental to the case against him. His writing was an uncanny match to that scrawled on the ransom notes.
Successful handwriting analysis requires the careful examination of a collection of different contributing factors that compose an individual’s writing style. The process of professional, forensic handwriting analysis is meticulous and thorough, and an analyst will look for a range of individual traits.
Among these traits is letter form. For this, the analyst will examine the slope, curves, proportional size of letters to others and slants, both for words and sentences as a whole and individual letters. This school of analysis will also examine a person’s propensity to pay special attention- or to completely ignore- certain letters in certain context.
An analyst will also closely examine formatting, or the spacing between letters, words and the placement of words on a line. In this respect, the analyst will also closely look at what kind of dead space the writer will leave on a page, including not only margin width, but the spacing between lines, considering the intersection- if any- of word strokes on one line over another.
Another fundamental component to accurate handwriting analysis is line form. This examines the pressure a writer will apply to the pen and paper while writing. Also studying the speed of the writer, this is determined by how smooth and dark the lines are. Other things an experienced analyst can determine is how shaky the lines are, if there are dark and thick starts and finishes and a lot of pen lifts. All these factors determine if the writer id slowly or naturally, quickly forming letters.
When defining the term “Handwriting Expert” as one who is qualified to offer certified opinions with respect to forgery, there is a gray area for those who are not familiar with the industry. Results of internet searches for “Handwriting Expert” fail to differentiate between a graphologist and a forensic handwriting expert. With just a little bit of research results show that the differences are quite profound. The most important and basic difference between a graphologist and a forensic document examiner is the background, training, experience and board certification required by each profession.
The practice of graphology is the act of determining degrees of personality characteristics, physical attributes or injuries to an individual based only on the “appearance” of one’s handwriting. For example, if an individual makes capital letters shorter than some lower case letters a graphologist may conclude that the author has a low self-esteem. Recently a graphology online course offer a course designed train the graphologist on how to identify the sex of the unborn child by examining the expectant mother’s handwriting.
On the other hand a forensic document examiner provides opinions as to the authenticity or true history of a document or disputed signature. Based on proven scientific principles the details, elements and characteristics of a document or signature can be identified and compared to determine whether-or-not the document or signature is genuine or a forgery.
Confusing a forensic handwriting expert for a graphologist can land you on the wrong end of a correction lecture. The practice of graphology requires relatively a simple certification, which can be completed in just a few months while to become a certified forensic document examiner one is required to train a minimum of two years before embarking on certification which could take another year and a half to two years. Whose analysis and opinion would you trust in a court of law?
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