Handwriting analysis will continue to be admissible as scientific evidence in local courts, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in an opinion (PDF) published this morning.
A handwritten note discovered at the crime scene played a major role in the trial of Robert Pettus, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2008. On appeal, Pettus argued that a 2009 report by the National Research Council of the National Academies cast new and serious doubts on the reliability of the forensic sciences, including handwriting analysis.
Senior Judge Michael Farrell, writing for the three-judge panel, acknowledged that Pettus and the D.C. Public Defender Service, which argued the case as an amicus party, made “a spirited attack” on the acceptance of pattern-matching analysis.
However, the court found that the report failed to detail specific problems with handwriting analysis – as opposed to the forensic sciences as a whole – and that the methodology behind handwriting analysis is “well-established and accepted in the forensic science community generally.”
Pettus’ attorney, solo practitioner Thomas Heslep, said this morning that he was still reviewing the opinion, but expected that he would petition for a rehearing before the whole court. A representative for the Public Defender Service did not immediately return a request for comment, and U.S. attorney office spokesman William Miller declined to comment.
Police charged Pettus in the 2004 death of 77-year-old Martha Byrd. Byrd, who was Pettus’ neighbor, was found stabbed and strangled in her home. During the crime scene investigation, police discovered a handwritten note left on Byrd’s body that read, “You souldins [sic] have cheated on me."
As part of the prosecutions’ case, an FBI handwriting analysis expert testified at trial that based on comparisons of the note and 235 pages of Pettus’ writing, he concluded Pettus authored the note. A District of Columbia Superior Court jury convicted Pettus in May 2008 of first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault and other crimes in connection with Byrd’s death. Judge Neal Kravitz sentenced him in October 2008 to serve 60 years in jail.
In February 2009, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued a lengthy report on the state of the forensic sciences, including handwriting analysis. The report concluded that with the exception of DNA analysis, no forensic method had been proven to consistently and definitively match evidence to a specific person or source.
Pettus appealed his conviction, arguing that the report supported his claim that Kravitz made a mistake in allowing the FBI examiner to testify as an expert. At the very least, he argued, Kravitz should have limited the examiner from testifying that he was certain Pettus wrote the note.
The three-judge appellate panel heard oral arguments on Dec. 6. Although Pettus is being represented on appeal by Heslep, Alice Wang of the D.C. Public Defender Service argued the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Suzanne Nyland argued for the government.
Before the trial, Pettus had objected to the presentation of the FBI’s handwriting analysis as scientific evidence. Both sides presented experts, at which point Kravitz decided to admit the testimony.
The appeals court found that the 2009 report didn’t offer novel arguments against the reliability of handwriting evidence or prove that the scientific community had decided to reject it altogether.
During oral arguments, Wang said that the report’s general conclusion – that no area of forensic science besides DNA analysis was 100 percent accurate at matching a person to a piece of evidence – should apply to handwriting analysis. Farrell, in response, wrote that “it exaggerates the measured conclusions and recommendations of the Report to read them as a rejection of the scientific basis for all pattern-matching analysis, including handwriting identification.”