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Handwriting Analysis Can’t Exonerate Roy Moore

In an attempt to disprove one of several sexual misconduct allegations against him, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has turned to a dubious science: handwriting analysis. In a press conference this week, Moore’s lawyer tried to cast doubt on allegations that Moore sexually assaulted Beverly Young Nelson in 1977 by suggesting that a note in her yearbook that Nelson said was written by Moore was forged.

The note reads: “To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Christmas 1977 Love, Roy Moore, D.A.” Moore’s team says it’s a forgery, and they’re asking a handwriting analyst to prove it.

But such an examination1 would be unlikely to empirically prove Moore’s position — or much of anything. Despite its widespread use, handwriting analysis is neither reliable nor scientifically confirmed.

“There are few, if any, well-designed studies that show how well handwriting analysts can identify a forgery under conditions that mimic those that might exist in legal cases,” said Jonathan Koehler, a law professor and forensic science expert at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. “Even major treatises on handwriting analysis concede that it is extremely difficult for anyone to be able to figure out if a signature or other very limited writing sample has been forged.”

Even without a firm scientific basis, handwriting analysis is often presented in trials. A 1993 Supreme Court decision, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, increased the scrutiny of supposedly scientific evidence and expert testimony presented in court, but case law remains pretty favorable to the admissibility of handwriting analysis, particularly in state courts, said Vanderbilt Law School professor Edward Cheng, a coauthor of “Modern Scientific Evidence.” Federal courts tend to be a little less open to allowing it, but, “There are very few places where it’s excluded,” he said.

Cheng speculates that the reason there hasn’t been much policing of handwriting evidence from the courts is that the technique seems intuitive. People can imagine how it works, and think they understand the evidence before them.

But this eagerness to believe might also mislead. The technique is “highly subjective” and “vulnerable to context effects such as expectation and suggestion,” according to an examination of cases involving handwriting identification by Seton Hall law professor and forensic handwriting expert Michael Risinger.

If the experts are liable to be subjective, then surely bystanders reading the news are, as well. Nelson’s supporters see a creepy inscription by a man 14 years older than the girl he’s fawning over, and Moore’s defenders insist that it’s nothing but a fake. Even given the same facts, today’s partisans seem entitled to their own interpretations. Evidence is in the eye of the beholder.

Footnotes

  1. Nelson’s attorney, Gloria Allred, said in a statement that Nelson would allow independent experts to examine the yearbook only if a U.S. Senate committee conducts a hearing about the accusations against Moore.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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