As a source of unlimited fascination due to its topics, forensic science has a significant place in the legal system of every country in the world and an irreplaceable influence upon criminal investigations. This study is designed according to a twin approach in view: a scientific approach towards the characteristics of handwriting on the one hand, and a practical view centred on the graphic elements – which are subjects to graphoscopic examination – on the other. The main points of interest to be discussed in the following article are: the difference between graphology and graphoscopy; the scientific basis of identifying an individual based on his handwriting; the handwriting’s individuality, relative stability, reactivity and naturalness, along with its general and special features; and also the means of falsification.
1. Graphology vs. Graphoscopy
Graphology and graphoscopy are very similar at first sight because of their names (they have the same origin, dating back to the Antiquity) and both have developed through history as a sum of concepts, together with intuitive and experimental methods, designed with the purpose of examining human handwriting. The main common aspect of graphology and graphoscopy is their point of interest and analysis: the handwriting. However, they demonstrate different perspectives on handwriting. Graphology represents the science of discovering the personality of an individual by examining his/her handwriting only, while graphoscopy represents a field of forensic science used in the identification process of an unknown author of a piece of handwriting (including punctuation marks, numbers, signatures), based on a system formed by physiological, anatomical, psychological, calligraphic and graphological parameters, as presented by Alămoreanu & Lazăr (2008).
Through the development process, multiple definitions were given to the two notions in order to accurately determine their meaning and reduce the risk of confusion. Graphology was defined as “the portrayal of an individual’s character through his handwriting” (Stahl, 1930, p.11) and “the psychological study of the written documents” (Athanasiu, 1996, p.10). Alămoreanu (2000, p.101) shaped its essence as “a scientific discipline which aims to discover the human personality, the manner in which the writing reflects the psychological traits of the author, by only using the interpretation and examination of this person’s handwriting”. As it can be inferred, graphology is a cognitive approach, which focuses on revealing the psychological traits of the known author of a clear and accurate piece of handwriting, using the methods of psychology, writing and semantics.
Graphoscopy was, for quite a long period of time, an integrated part of graphology. Nevertheless, it evolved slowly but surely into a distinct field of forensic science which focuses on revealing the unknown author of a false, clandestine and disputed handwriting. Graphoscopy examines scripts as finite products, pursuing the identification of the author by analysing the graphic elements such as dimension, direction, pressure, continuity and inclination. The physical laws of writing and elements of psychology are used scarcely and without proper interpretation. In addition to finding the unknown author of a handwriting, graphoscopy also deals with the discovery of false documents, the restoration of a voluntarily or involuntarily damaged writing, or appraising the authenticity of a certain handwriting or document.
2. The scientific background
From an empirical point of view, writing is a way of communication, but from the forensic perspective it represents an atypical trace with special features, created by a human’s body mechanism. In forensics this trace means “the modification created at the crime scene in the process of committing a crime, through the movement and the action of the person involved or generated by other beings, objects or phenomena, which is useful for the forensic research through its appearance, characteristics, position and content” (Alămoreanu, pp.57-58). In other words, the trace is “the entirety of the physical elements whose formation is determined by the perpetration of a crime” (Suciu, 1972, p.200). The atypicality of writing as a trace stands in the fact that, instead of being transferred from one object to another object or place, it appears as an array of graphic elements produced as a result of nervous and muscular activity executed by an individual and has to be seen as a dynamic reality, not a static one (Ionescu, 2006). Another difference is that two scripts with the same content and executed by the same person will never be identical if they are authentic, however, this rule does not apply to the traditional traces.
The scientific basis of identifying an individual through his handwriting is the existence of some particular elements in the handwriting of each person, which depend on the nervous activity of the cerebral cortex as concluded by Alecu (2004).This results in a series of movements that once will become a skill as a consequence of the bonds between the centres of excitation and conditioned reflexes. Writing is, first of all, an intellectual skill, an automatism, an instinct developed as a result of repeated exercise, part of a learning process. The development of handwriting has several stages: the elementary handwriting (here the first graphic elements are taught), the correct writing of letters and words (in this stage the graphic elements acquired in the previous stage start to become a skill and a series of individual peculiarities start to appear), while the final stage is of fast handwriting.The latter is the most important element of the process; the faster a person writes, the more developed the handwriting is. The completion of the process takes place at around the age of twenty-two. If categorised on the basis of the level of development, the handwriting can be inferior (weakly coordinated), poorly developed, medium developed (equable, neat) and superior (with simplified letters and multiple variations of the same letter).The characteristics of handwriting as a developed skill are its individuality, stability, reactivity and as some authors say, naturalness (Frățilă, 2013).
2.1. The individuality
This characteristic implies the fact that every individual’s handwriting, overall and in detail, is unique; there cannot be two individuals with identical handwriting and that is why this type of identification is possible. Even if some graphic elements can be found to be the same by more than one individual, in reality, there are numerous combinations that can be executed using the same graphic elements and this is where the uniqueness appears. Individuality can be observed not only when linked to the shape of the letters, but also with regards to the content, as a consequence of intellectual development. This is the reason why it is said that the more developed a handwriting is, the more it expresses the individuality of the author.
Individuality, according to Ionescu (2010), is influenced by force, balance, the mobility of the superior nervous processes and sometimes by the actual writing conditions. The force refers to the functional capacity of the nervous cells to determine the ease or difficulty in the appearance of conditioned reflexes that are the basis of the writing process, with direct influence to the muscle tone of the hand that carries out the writing. Balance refers to the ratio between excitation and inhibition which determines the capacity of reaction control and coordination when writing. In addition, mobility represents the ability of the nervous processes to adapt to new realities and occurrences. Even if there is some amount of adaptability, it does not exclude the handwriting’s stability, since all the changes take place in certain parameters that do not influence the general stability.
2.2. The relative stability
Once certain characteristics of the handwriting are developed, they tend to remain stable for the rest of the author’s life, but without reaching an absolute stability –ascertain small changes may occur. Relative stability means that some changes may appear in one’s handwriting due to the development of the writing, the author’s psychosomatic condition as a result of a certain physiological state (illness or extreme fatigue), the hand directing made by another person, a certain state of intoxication (with alcohol, tranquilizers, drugs), age, or the necessity of very fast writing (in the case of students or doctors). Besides, temporary causes such as extreme cold, the position of the author, and the necessity of writing in a means of transportation may also play a remarkable role. However, these changes cannot be confused with the variability of an individual’s handwriting, i.e. the ability to have more types of handwriting.
2.3. The reactivity
Reactivity takes into consideration the handwriting’s capacity to be influenced by every external stimulus, resulting in different versions of the same handwriting. It represents the basis of the natural variability of the handwriting, and depending on the author’s psychosomatic characteristics the variability can be high, medium or low, but never unlimited, so forensic experts must pay special attention to this aspect.
2.4. The naturalness
Naturalness is a characteristic rarely found in specialized studies. Frățilă (2013) believes that this characteristic results from the fact that handwriting is a developed skill and naturalness is emphasized when the handwriting is executed without any external or internal constraint. It concerns not only the overall writing but also some points of interest like the accuracy of the graphic elements, the coordination, the graphic harmony, or, on the contrary, its disorganisation (especially when the writing starts to degrade due to old age).
3. Writing’s features from the forensic perspective
From the numerous classifications that can be found in specialised studies, probably the differentiation between general and special features is the most important. Another point of interest is outside the graphic sphere, and it is the handwriting’s content, especially when forensic experts have to analyse an anonymous script. This type of analysis focuses on the type of language used (to determine the level of culture of the author); the complexity and the phrases of the construction; the correct use of grammar rules, the style; the type of vocabulary used; and punctuation marks. Another crucial point is the layout: the positioning on the writing surface; the size of the paragraphs and their alignment; the spacing; or the location of certain mentions like signature. Some authors, such as Ionescu (1973), consider positioning on the writing surface to be one of the general features.
The general features are also known as graphic dominants that consider the overall handwriting and, if analysed separately, they are found in different individuals’ writings. The general features include the stage of development; the shape; the dimensions; the tilt and the cohesion (the continuity of the handwriting). In addition, the speed of writing; the pressure and the rows’ form can also be ranked into this category. The stage of development refers to the extent to which one individual has developed his handwriting skill. The shape refers to the overall appearance of the handwriting, including the way letters are drawn. When it comes to the dimension perspective, the height and width of the letters are taken into consideration, distinguishing small, medium and large writings. The tilt of the handwriting represents the letters’ position in comparison to the horizontal line of the rows. Cohesion refers to the binding mode of the letters and the number of letters drawn with an uninterrupted movement of a pen. The writing speed increases with the evolution of the writing. Pressure refers to the pressing force of the writing instrument (e.g. inferior handwritings present the highest pressure because of the weak coordination and lesser control of the writing instrument).
The special features, known as individual or particular features, amount to every graphic element used and emphasize the manner in which every letter or group of letters are executed. The special features help avoid the errors in identification which can appear because of the apparent resemblance of two different scripts. General features can easily be falsified by comparing them to the special ones and that is why the special features are really useful in forensic expertise.
4. Methods of falsification
Basically, there are two methods of handwriting falsification: disguise and counterfeit. When talking about disguising the writing, the author’s will has major importance: he voluntarily changes his handwriting and not as a result of external occurrences. The purpose is not to be discovered and this method is often used for ransom or threat letters. Concretely, disguise can be done by distorting the graphic features. This may include imitating a less developed writing – however, it is important to note that a superior handwriting can never be disguised by a person with an inferior writing –; writing with capital letters; writing with the left hand (for the right-handed) and vice versa. A disguised handwriting is easy to discover because the author often preserves some features of his personal handwriting.
Counterfeit is a specific method of falsification used especially for signatures that can be done by imitation or transcription. The difference between copying and imitation is the fact that while the first one is more accurate, the second one has the advantage of naturalness. The disadvantages are that the copied signatures are often executed with high and constant pressure and the imitated signatures can capture some personal writing features of the imitator, these aspects being of significant use in forensic expertise.
To summarise the statements and ideas presented in the article: graphology and graphoscopy are two entirely differing approaches on handwriting, the only common element being handwriting itself, as the object of examination. It can clearly be inferred that from a forensic perspective, handwriting represents an atypical trace. The scientific basis of its identification stands in the cognitive processes of the human brain, which determine the formation of conditional reflexes such as the handwriting. As a consequence, the main characteristics of the handwriting are its individuality, relative stability, reactivity, and naturalness. From the forensic perspective, handwriting features can be categorised as general ones, known as graphic dominants, and special ones, that are used in graphoscopic examination, being of remarkable use in the process of characterising handwriting. Moreover, a specific point of interest can be the analysis of the content of the writing and the positioning on the writing surface.
It is marvellous how such an usual activity as the handwriting which is done daily and easily by most of the people, can be influenced by so many different factors and disguises, such an important amount of information about the person who has written it. It is fascinating that, with proper knowledge, only by examining a piece of handwriting one can discover not only the true personality of an individual but also the identity of the author, his peculiarities and his intentions. All these being said, it once more it proven that the biggest discoveries stay not in plain sight but in the smallest, hidden details.
By Iulia Ioana Dranca
This article has been originally published in issue 5.1 of the magazine, which can be found here. All references used can be found at the end of that issue.