Monday, January 27, 2014

The Forensics of Forgery and Handwriting Analysis: Information for Writers


Writers hand with pen
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Your character stands accused. We all know she's innocent, but she makes an awfully compelling fall-gal. And this gives your hero a reason to ride to her rescue. (Even if she doesn't believe she really needs his help.)

The investigators think that your heroine has forged the documents, and now she's pacing in the investigation room, wringing her hands.

What's happening next in your plot?

Enter the QDE!

Questioned Document Examiners (QDE) might analyse such plot points as:
* Wills
* Medical information
* Passports
* Contracts, including life insurance policies
* Letters, including suicide notes
* Threats:  ransom notes, hold up notes, blackmail etc.
* Financial papers:
   `Stocks and bonds

Video Quick Study (3:36) QDE discussing his work

But the two main areas of forensic analysis can be grouped as:
1. Handwriting
2. Material examination

In materials examination a QDE will have specialties that include:
* Paper
* Ink
* Toner
* Typewriters (for older cases or older evidence)
* Other document producing machinery or apparatus (like rubber stamps)

The -foot ( m) diameter granite CIA seal in th...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Examples of employers include:
* Large corporations, auction houses, etc.
* US military
* Larger police agencies
* US Post Office
* ATF and E
* Secret Service

Video Quick Study (2:11) FBI unit talks about their work.

A handwriting expert is not a graphologist. A graphologist's job is to analyse a person's personality by their handwriting.  A graphologist might say things like, "Do you see how the writer slants their sentence upward? This means that they are optimistic. And see how they cross the lower case "t"s at the top like a capital letter? This shows that they are strongly focused." Though a graphologist might be a fun character to entwine into your plot - especially if they got the personality all wrong and lead the authorities on a goose chase - it is not what a hand writing expert does.

Video Quick Study (8:11) Does your character need to hire a QDE to help them through the plot line? This is a video that includes costs, questions, and information about hiring a QDE.

The handwritten document is authenticated by comparison with samples called exemplars. There are two types of samples: requested and collected.

A requested sample:
* A suspect will be asked to write out the same words as were found in the evidence.
* The words should be dictated to the suspect.
* The writer will make several copies so that the examiner can understand the full  scope of the
   writer's range of variation.
* It is optimal to give the suspect the same writing tool as was used in creating the questioned document.
   ex. No. 2 lead pencil or black gel pen.
* Same kind of paper should be used
* Same type of writing (block, cursive, print)

Cursive handwriting from the nineteenth-centur...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A collected sample:
* Is one that is taken from the suspect's surroundings
* This might be done if:
   `The suspect is uncooperative with the
   `The investigation is covert
   `The suspect is deceased or missing
* Examples might come from:
   ` Checks
   ` Handwritten letters
   ` Diaries
* The QDE MUST be sure that the documents
    are authentic. An employer (etc.) might
    protect an employee because - they are
    lovers, family, they are being blackmailed...
    your plot twist potential is endless here.

Handwriting by the subject is informed by:
* Size of the individual's fingers, hands, and arms
* Muscular makeup
* Physical or mental disability
* Schooling (young people entering college now most likely did not study cursive writing in school)
* Individualization of how the writer thinks a letter should look

Characteristics that a QDE considers include:

* Beginning, connective, and ending strokes
* Pen lift
Ocey Snead suicide note
Ocey Snead suicide note (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* Pen pressure
* Line quality
* Spacing
* Proportion
* Dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s
* General overall appearance

The QDE might also look at:
* Tear marks
* Watermarks
* Other paper manufacturing characteristics
   that might identify age, for example
* Changes in ink.

Video Quick Study (4:33)

Document Collection

* Handle as little as possible
* Never fold, crease, or staple, the samples
* Keep the sample separate from other documents in that ink, handwriting, and other qualities can easily
   be transferred.
* Burned or charred documents are fragile and therefore must be hand delivered
* When possible collect: typewriters, check writers, rubber stamps or seals to be examined for microscopic


* Magnification
Injectie spuit & Injectienaald
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* Micromitors - measure paper thickness to
   thousandths of an inch
* Ink
   ` UV lighting and other non destructive tests
   ` Chemical analysis: chromotography tests
     (destructive test but they can take a
     sample with a hypodermic needle.)
* Electrostatic devices - can be used to check for writing that has left and indentation
* Specialized computer analytics

Once they have conducted all of their tests, the QDE offers their interpretations to the investigators and, if necessary, testifies in court.

Perhaps you remember the Alyssa Bustamante case where the teen strangled and stabbed her nine-year-old neighbor:

The most poignant part of Monday's testimony came when a handwriting expert described how he was able to see through the blue ink that Bustamante had used in an attempt to cover up her original journal entry on the night of Elizabeth's murder.

He then read the entry aloud in court:

-Alyssa Bustamante's diary entry
'I just f***ing killed someone. I strangled them and slit their throat and stabbed them now they're dead. I don't know how to feel atm [at the moment]. It was ahmazing. As soon as you get over the "ohmygawd I can't do this" feeling, it's pretty enjoyable. I'm kinda nervous and shaky though right now. Kay, I gotta go to church' news article link

From that testimony, Alyssa was sent to prison for life. Another psychopath removed from the streets.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  2. I am just now starting the character list and slowly starting to sort out the order things happen in the plot outline for a murder mystery book I am planning to write in the near future but this definitely gives me a couple things to write down on my brainstorming sheets. This will help add more suspense to a couple scenes.

  3. I have used handwriting analysis in two separate cases, in both the analyst said he could testify that my suspects were in fact the people who wrote the document that linked them to the crime. Both cases were similar in how they unfolded. Both cases were reference one person harassing another, one in the form of writing a very harassing and threatening letter and another with a teenager constantly filling out contact forms in the name of the victim so the person would receive numerous unsolicited telemarketing calls.

    For each case I had a person right off the bat whom I thought had committed the harassment. I requested their DMV application which is filled out by hand by the applicant. In the teenager's case, his brothers and parents were all shady and had been harassing the victim for years so I obtained all of their DMV applications. I sent the applications along with the evidence to the state crime lab. The analyst said in the first case, the one with a single application, that the woman most likely wrote the letter. In the second case, the analyst picked the teenager's application out of the five he was given and that was the person whom I thought was the most likely culprit in the case.

    Using the analyst's conclusion, I went to a judge (two different judges for the different cases) and requested an order for characteristics on each of my suspects. An order for characteristics is sort of like a warrant, it compels your suspect to provide you with whatever personal characteristics are outlined in the order. For instance, if a victim couldn't identify their attacker but had clearly seen a tattoo of an angel on their chest, and we believed we knew who the suspect was but that person refused to show us their chest, we could get an order for characteristics (with probable cause) to compel that suspect to show us his chest to verify the tattoo. An order for characteristics could cover DNA, fingerprints, voice analysis, full-body photographs, hair samples, skin/tissue samples, handwriting samples, basically anything that makes you unique and can tie you to a crime.

    After obtaining the orders, I picked the two people up and brought them to an interview room. They are not under arrest at this point, but the order allows me to take them to any location reasonably necessary to obtain the information the order outlines. I advised them of their Miranda Rights and questioned them about the crime. I then gave each of them an exemplar book which was sent to me by the crime lab. It was the shape of a standard checkbook (if you remember what those things are) but a little bit bigger. Each page had writing tasks for the suspect to complete. Once the book was filled, I sent it to the lab and in both cases, the analyst gave me a definitive answer that my suspects were in fact the culprits.

    I feel like I should throw in a car chase or possibly a shootout in an old abandoned warehouse or something; but detective work is usually played out behind a computer, using our greatest weapon: Microsoft Word.

    1. Jay -
      Thank you so much for taking the time t help us understand the linear process and how this worked out in a real-world scenario.