Handwriting Experts Analyze Astor Signature on Third Codicil

Photo: Brooke Russell Astor: Signature Under Scrutiny in Trial: Handwriting Experts Analyze Astor Signature On Third Codicil; One Expert Says: No Doubt That Is Not Brooke Astors Signature

Brooke Astor was a woman known to be obsessed with her last will and testament. Between 1953 and 2003, she is said to have changed her will 38 times. But in the final years of her life, when Astor was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, more changes were made to her will, which prosecutors say departed radically from her previously stated intentions about who would inherit her multimillion-dollar fortune.

Instead of most of that money going to charity, her only son Tony Marshall, would get nearly all of it.

At the center of the Astor trial was the issue of whether Tony Marshall deceived his mother, who prosecutors say was incompetent, into changing her will and whether one of the signatures on the last amendment to Astor's will is actually a forgery.

The jury found 85-year-old Marshall guilty on 14 criminal counts, including fraud, grand larceny and conspiracy. Co-defendant Francis Morrissey, Astor's estate lawyer, was found guilty of forgery.

During the latter days of the five-month trial, much of the testimony rested on that of three handwriting experts. Each scrutinized the late Brooke Russell Astor's signature on the third codicil, dated March 3, 2004.

Gus Lesnevich, a handwriting expert called to the stand by the prosecution, collected many known signatures of Astor from 1953 to 2004. His testimony raised many questions about the authenticity of the disputed signature that he said appeared to be written very smoothly, with a great deal of pen control.

Lesnevich told the court that after examining the known Brooke Russell Astor signatures, the signature in question on the third codicil stood out for three main reasons. First, the "r" and the "o" in Brooke are connected. In the 240 signatures accumulated by Lesnevich -- with the exception of the signature on the third codicil -- in only one other signature had Brooke connected her "r" and "o," he said.

The second discrepancy in the signature is that the two "s"s in Russell are dropped, whereas, usually they were defined. Third, according to Lesnevich, the "Astor" is far too strong and defined for a 102-year-old woman.

The "a" had "a particular finesse and quality to it that Mrs. Astor was just not capable of at that time of her life," he said during his testimony.

Just two months before Astor purportedly signed this hotly contested document, on Jan. 12, 2004, she signed a second codicil. That signature sample was shown in court, and appeared weak, uneven, and shaky.

After closely analyzing all of Astor's signatures, Lesnevich said on the stand, "I have absolutely no doubt that is not Brooke Astor's signature."

Francis Morrissey's defense attorney, Thomas Puccio, called the only two defense witnesses to the stand, both handwriting experts. One expert, Alan Robillard, testified and gave his opinion of the signature on the third codicil. He was "virtually certain it's authentic."

In his testimony he explained how if someone had forged the signature, there would be signs of hesitation or a slower speed of writing, which he said he did not find here. Robillard also said he did not find anything suspicious with the dropped "s"s in "Russell," testifying that elderly people often leave letters out of their names.

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