If you are called upon to handle a case that involves a handwriting forgery, you may wish to retain a handwriting expert. A forensic handwriting expert compares signatures and handwriting, handprinting, or other graphic expressions such as graffiti or doodles to determine authorship and/or authenticity. The more general term “document examiner” applies to a wider field that includes ink and paper analysis, typewriting, and other types of document fraud. It may or may not include handwriting authentication.
Forensic handwriting examiners usually come either from the private or public sector. Public sector examiners are in law enforcement or some other government agency, such as the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, the Postal Service or a Police Department. They take courses and may apprentice in their government laboratory. Later, after leaving that employment, the government-trained handwriting examiner often opens a practice in the private sector.
The independent handwriting examiner who has never worked for a government agency is likely to have studied handwriting authentication through distance learning courses or private study with a mentor who has spent many years practicing in the field of forensics. In most cases, the training offered through government entities is not available to private examiners. Nonetheless, both groups study many of the same textbooks, acquire the same knowledge, and follow the same procedures, which suggests that a well-trained private examiner and a government-trained examiner have equivalent competencies.
More important than where or how the handwriting examiner trained, or where he or she worked, is the quality of the learning experience—what the examiner learned during that training period, and the type and amount of experience garnered through years of study and practice.
In many cases, private examiners have additional training in personality assessment. These studies include important information about the complex interaction that takes place between the brain, the eyes, and the hand in order to produce the graphic trail—handwriting—on a sheet of paper. Although in cases of authentication, the handwriting expert does not usually analyze the handwriting for personality traits, a sound knowledge of the effects on handwriting of mood changes, mental or physical illness or trauma, aging, medications and other chemical substances, as well as other physiological factors is often needed to make a determination as to authorship.
Consider one example where knowledge of physical and mental effects on handwriting would be of vital importance: a woman in her 80s has Alzheimer’s. Her caregiver, a 35-year-old female is accused of forging signatures on the older woman’s checking account.
In order complete a proper and accurate examination, the handwriting examiner would explore the effects that the client’s age and the disease have had on her handwriting. This is done by examining a large number of exemplars written over a period of time. Some people have strong handwriting well into their eighties or nineties, while others manifest weakness and frailty early on. In some illnesses, tremor—shakiness along the writing line, is often seen. But tremor is also sometimes present in forgeries due to the attempt to slowly copy a signature that’s unnatural to the forger.
Thus, the handwriting examiner would need to determine which type of tremor was present in this case. He or she would also need to determine the various ways the client wrote her name in order to establish her personal range of variation, which would help to demonstrate the effect of disease and aging on her handwriting. Only after a thorough, in-depth analysis and comparison can the examiner make a determination as to whether or not the signatures on the checks were genuine.
As in any other field, an attorney can find good or bad handwriting examiners, regardless of where they received their training. Investigating and verifying the information on the curriculum vitae helps to ensure that the examiner has the level of competency claimed.
Expert 06229 is a practicing handwriting examiner whose testimony has been accepted since 1985. She is appointed to the Judges Panel of Experts for Los Angeles County, and her lectures to legal professionals are accepted for MCLE. She has taught Introduction to Forensic Handwriting Examination at UC Riverside and is a multi-published author.