STAMFORD – The science of handwriting analysis came under fire Monday during the trial of John Mallozzi, the former city Democratic Party chair charged with forging absentee ballots.
Mallozzi’s attorney took aim at the retired chief handwriting expert for the State Police Forensic Lab, who was cross-examined as the trial resumed after a month-long break.
The attorney, Stephan Seeger, shot questions at the forensic examiner, Greg Kettering. Seeger pushed Kettering to explain just how sure he is of the techniques used to distinguish one person’s handwriting from another’s.
Seeger fixed on what he characterized as a discrepancy between Kettering’s responses to questioning by prosecutors last month, and what Kettering wrote in his report.
“You came to the conclusion that there were ‘indications of common authorship’” between signatures on some of the allegedly forged ballots and samples of Mallozzi’s handwriting, Seeger said to Kettering on the witness stand.
“But you didn’t end it with that. You said ‘indications of common authorship that are far from conclusive.’ Now that I’m asking the questions, what does that mean?” Seeger asked.
“It means the evidence is far short of definite conclusions,” Kettering answered.
“Every time you were asked about it before, you said the signatures showed ‘indications of common authorship,’” Seeger said. “Today you’re adding ‘far from conclusive?’”
“No,” Kettering replied. “It’s in the report.”
When he referred to his conclusions in response to the prosecutor’s questions, he assumed everyone understood what he meant because it was documented in his report, Kettering said.
“So this is a very weak conclusion?” Seeger asked.
“Yes,” Kettering said. “The evidence falls short of what would be necessary to support a definite conclusion.”
It was unclear during Monday’s proceeding how many of the 14 absentee ballots Mallozzi is charged with forging are not fully supported by forensic handwriting analysis.
But Seeger forged ahead.
He had many questions about the day in 2018 that he said his client spent three hours in a small room at the Hoyt Street courthouse providing several hundred handwriting samples, including writing the names of the Stamford residents who unknowingly “voted” by absentee ballot.
Seeger wanted to know whether the handwriting samples Mallozzi provided from that session – and Kettering used to compare to the handwriting on the allegedly forged ballots – were “true” samples.
Seeger asked Kettering whether it would be better if Kettering had “more natural” Mallozzi handwriting samples from checks, receipts, business and other documents.
No, Kettering said.
“It wouldn’t be better; it would just be different,” he testified.
Most Americans sign their names partly with print letters and partly in cursive, Kettering said. They use a more formal handwriting to sign things like wills and mortgages, a casual style for things like work reports, and a speedy scribble for things like receipts. But all reveal the individual, Kettering said.
When he magnifies a signature 800 percent and studies it on a screen, he can see unique characteristics that provide clues about the author, Kettering said. In a science of patterns, he looks for shape, proportion, spacing, slant, strokes, design, pen pressure, angularity, use of the baseline, and more, he said.
“You can have four unique characteristics within one letter,” Kettering said.
He also looks for “a range of natural variations,” he said.
“Every time you write your signature, it’s different. No person writes their signature the same way twice,” he said. “But if you break it down, you can see the formations are similar.”
Handwriting examiners can tell whether a person attempted to disguise their signature, and the speed with which they wrote it, he said.
“What if you had a gun to your head? Wouldn’t that change your signature?” Seeger asked.
Perhaps to a degree, Kettering said, but “I would know what to look for.”
Kettering said he trained with the FBI and the Secret Service and apprenticed for five years before becoming a full-term document examiner. According to his LinkedIn page, Kettering is an Army veteran who holds a master’s degree in forensic science and technology. He worked for the Connecticut Division of Scientific Services for more than 20 years.
Seeger said he will continue his cross-examination of Kettering on Tuesday.
Mallozzi has pleaded not guilty to 28 Class D felonies, half for second-degree forgery and half for filing false statements in absentee balloting.
The case stems from the 2015 municipal election, when a Stamford man went to his polling place to vote but was denied because town clerk records showed he had already cast an absentee ballot.
It turned out that a ballot had been used in the man’s name without his knowledge. Investigators said they traced it to Mallozzi. They later alleged that 13 other ballots had been forged.
Former Town Clerk Donna Loglisci, a Republican, testified last month that she knew she broke the law when she gave ballots to Mallozzi, a Democrat. Loglisci cooperated as a witness and has not been charged.
Mallozzi, who once chaired the Stamford Democratic City Committee and sat on the Democratic State Central Committee, was arrested in January 2019 after a 20-month investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which turned the case over to the state’s attorney.
Mallozzi chose for a judge to decide a verdict instead of a jury. Judge Kevin Randolph is hearing the case, expected to wrap up by Friday.