That headline in this week's National Law Journal had jury consultants and lawyers buzzing all week. It's fair to say that a lot of people had trouble taking it seriously.
The NLJ article (it's subscription only) was serious enough. It described trial lawyers who hire handwriting analysts to help them in voir dire -- "a significant competitive edge," one called it. It's like the handwriting analysis you tried to do on your friends in high school:
Handwriting experts say they look for a number of clues in a person's writing, such as the amount of pressure used, the size and angles of the letters and spaces between words. For example, tiny writing may indicate a detail-oriented person interested in facts more than emotions. Leaders may apply a lot of pressure, use big letters and have angles in their writing, experts said.
Does it work? The Handwriting Analysts Group, an association of associations of graphologists, says it does. ("You've got questions, we've got answers," their website says, and I bet a lot of people do.) Nonbelievers categorize it with astrology and palm reading; the Skeptic's Dictionary calls it "another pipe dream of those of those who want a quick and dirty decision making process" -- which does, to be fair, describe the secret wish of any lawyer facing a jury box full of blank faces. There are empirical studies, of course; here's one concluding there is "limited value in hand-writing analysis as a predictive tool."
What jurors' writing really reveals: literacy
I think we kind of know instinctively what to do with handwriting in and of itself. When I see someone's handwriting, I often feel it gives me information about her personality; I'm guessing most people feel that. We would struggle to explain in words how it works, just as we would struggle to explain how we respond to a human face. We simply know it's there, and we trust it to an extent. If you're lucky enough to have written jury questionnaires, and someone's bold or rounded or messy handwriting feels like a clue to you, let it enter into the mix by all means.
There's another question, though, that juror writing samples can answer, and it has nothing to do with the shape of letters. How well does this juror read and write? Fourteen percent of American adults can perform no more than the simplest reading tasks. Many of them are fairly articulate in conversation -- but when they write a sentence, their disability is clear. If your case needs jurors who can read easily, written questionnaires may be your only clue that a juror has literacy issues.