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Handwriting Analysis

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In Pettus v. United States, decided by the D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday, "The principal issue on appeal is whether the trial judge erroneously admitted the expert opinion of an FBI forensic document examiner that a piece of handwriting left on the body of the murder victim had been written by appellant."

The answer is no.  Handwriting analysis remains admissible in D.C., and appellant's attempt to spin an NRC report into a rejection of such evidence fell flat.  "The Report is more nuanced than that."

The D.C. Court of Appeals is the high court of the state-like judicial system set up by Congress for local matters, not to be confused with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Curiously, this court has decided to stick with the old Frye test rather than go with the Daubert test applicable in federal courts.  See n. 4.  A number of actual state courts have done so, but it seems a little strange in a court that really is a federal court, whatever its form.  The case is Pettus v. United States, not Pettus v. District of Columbia.

Zoe Tillman has this post at BLT.  The facts of the case are after the jump.
The government's proof allowed the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant sexually assaulted and killed 78-year-old Martha Byrd in her home (next to his family's home) within a day or two before September 4, 2004, when her body was found lying in her bed. Ms. Byrd had been strangled from the rear and made unconscious with a cloth ligature wrapped around her neck, and stabbed five times from the front in the torso. Semen found on her thighs and material taken from her vagina contained sperm matching appellant's DNA profile by an overwhelming statistical probability. His left ring-finger print was found on the inside frame of a sliding glass door that had been forced open to allow entry to the home. The night before Ms. Byrd's body was found, appellant had been seen "[s]peeding up and down the street" in her car, and his palm print was later lifted from the car interior. Pieces of black cloth found on the rear floorboard of the vehicle, in the opinion of a forensic fiber analyst, could have originated from the same textile garment as the ligature used to strangle the victim.

An envelope found on Ms. Byrd's body contained a handwritten note that read: "You souldins [sic] have cheated on me." Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) document examiner Hector Maldonado later compared the handwriting on the envelope with 235 pages of appellant's handwriting taken from his jail cell. Based on Maldonado's observation of "an overwhelming amount of handwriting combinations . . . in agreement with each other" and no significant differences, he opined that appellant was the author of the murder scene note.  A conclusion of authorship, he explained, is not based on similarities between one, two, or three letters, but rather "on the combination of all the letters together and the words together, higher relationships, baseline arrangements, spacing between words and letters, initial strokes, ending strokes, [and] where the letters meet." His conclusion, applying these criteria, was that there were "significant combinations of handwriting characteristics . . . in agreement between the questioned writing and the known writing." Cross-examined about examples of individual letters or combinations from appellant's known writings that appeared pictorially different from the murder scene note, Maldonado maintained that those represented variations in appellant's own handwriting, not "significant difference[s]."  Although significant differences will preclude a conclusion of authorship, intra-writer variations will not do so, in his opinion.

1 Comment

DC doesn't appear to have codified its rules of evidence. I think that's probably the source of the difference.

Also, Daubert really isn't a great fit with this sort of evidence anyway. Daubert deals with scientific evidence, and handwriting analysis seems to be more of a skill than science.

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