Court: Appeals Court of Massachusetts
Case Name: McNeff v. Cerretani
Citation: 2020 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8
Following her father’s death, the plaintiff is named executor and divides his estate. However, she alleges that her brother unlawfully transferred a property deed to his own name. She retains a handwriting expert witness to opine on the authenticity of the signature on the deed. The defendant alleges the court erred by accepting the expert’s testimony.
The court examines the state’s legal precedent on accepting handwriting analysis. Since it is considered a ‘soft science,’ previous cases have deferred to the judge’s personal discretion. Upon review, the court finds that the trial judge did not abuse discretion. The expert’s testimony was well-reasoned and helpful to the trier of fact. There was no reason to exclude.
The plaintiff’s father named her as the executor of his estate. Following his death, as executor, the plaintiff divided the estate among herself, her mother, and siblings. This also included her brother, the defendant. At the time, the defendant lived in a house that belonged to the deceased. He then attempted to transfer the home to his name. However, a notary refused to notarize the deed without an authorized signature. The defendant returned the next day with a new deed apparently signed by the deceased. Again, the notary refused. The defendant then found a different notary to notarize the deed for $10. A letter sent by the district registry alerted the plaintiff to the deed transfer.
The plaintiff then pressed charges alleging the deed transfer was not valid. She retained a handwriting expert witness to support her case.
The Plaintiff’s Handwriting Expert Witness
The plaintiff’s handwriting expert witness opined that the signature on the deed did not belong to the deceased. In her testimony, the expert also described her extensive training in handwriting analysis. She further explained her methodology in reaching this conclusion. The defendant’s counsel also cross examined the expert at trial. The judge ultimately ruled in the plaintiff’s favor and deemed the deed null.
The defendant appealed the judgment against him. He charged that the trial court erred by accepting the plaintiff’s handwriting expert witness’s testimony. The defendant alleged the court abused its discretion, citing Commonwealth v. Pytou Heang.
To this point, the court noted that Massachusetts courts have long considered that qualified experts’ handwriting interpretation is admissible (Commonwealth v. Murphy, Commonwealth v. Buckley, Preston v. Peck, Richardson v. Newcomb). In the Murphy decision, the court held that handwriting analysis is a soft science. Specifically, it’s highly dependent on personal observations, psychiatric evaluations, and statistical data. This, in turn, depends on each judge’s discretion on admissibility. Moreover, as the Massachusetts courts have long accepted expert testimony on the authorship of handwriting as credible, a Daubert hearing was not required here.
The court explained that it was well within the trial judge’s discretion to allow the expert’s testimony. It noted that the expert’s testimony helped the court to interpret the evidence.
The court denied the defendant’s motion to review and exclude the handwriting expert witness’s testimony.
Key Takeaways for Experts
This case demonstrates a gatekeeping challenge outside of a Daubert or Frye hearing. This scenario is also specific to this state and the expert specialty. But it is an important reminder for experts to provide as much evidence and methodology behind their conclusions—especially in fields considered a soft science.