MA Court Views Handwriting Expert’s Analysis as a Soft Science

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.

ByZach Barreto

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Updated on February 1, 2023

MA Court Views Handwriting Expert’s Analysis as a Soft Science

Court: Appeals Court of MassachusettsJurisdiction: FederalCase Name: McNeff v. CerretaniCitation: 2020 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8

The plaintiff 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.

Facts

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.

Discussion

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.

Ruling

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.

About the author

Zach Barreto

Zach Barreto

Zach Barreto is a distinguished professional in the legal industry, currently serving as the Senior Vice President of Research at the Expert Institute. With a deep understanding of a broad range of legal practice areas, Zach's expertise encompasses personal injury, medical malpractice, mass torts, defective products, and many other sectors. His skills are particularly evident in handling complex litigation matters, including high-profile cases like the Opioids litigation, NFL Concussion Litigation, California Wildfires, 3M earplugs, Elmiron, Transvaginal Mesh, NFL Concussion Litigation, Roundup, Camp Lejeune, Hernia Mesh, IVC filters, Paraquat, Paragard, Talcum Powder, Zantac, and many others.

Under his leadership, the Expert Institute’s research team has expanded impressively from a single member to a robust team of 100 professionals over the last decade. This growth reflects his ability to navigate the intricate and demanding landscape of legal research and expert recruitment effectively. Zach has been instrumental in working on nationally significant litigation matters, including cases involving pharmaceuticals, medical devices, toxic chemical exposure, and wrongful death, among others.

At the Expert Institute, Zach is responsible for managing all aspects of the research department and developing strategic institutional relationships. He plays a key role in equipping attorneys for success through expert consulting, case management, strategic research, and expert due diligence provided by the Institute’s cloud-based legal services platform, Expert iQ.

Educationally, Zach holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and European History from Vanderbilt University.

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