June 25, 2020

Witness Credibility

A contested court proceeding typically involves the testimony of witnesses to the event or events in question. One side will naturally have their witnesses which they will use to bolster their argument. Conversely the other side will have their witnesses too. Each side can cross-examine the other's witnesses to undercut their credibility. Ultimately a decision has to be made as to a witness' credibility, i.e. is the witness' testimony a reliable source of information or not. The person entrusted with the responsibility to determine witness credibility is the trial judge. People v. Jackson (2014) 58 Cal.4th 724, 749. 

A recent unpublished appellate decision involved a trial judge making a determination as to witness credibility.

The decedent had allegedly executed a trust and quitclaim deed. The trust named decedent's girlfriend as the remainder beneficiary. Decedent's daughter challenged the validity of the trust and quitclaim deed.

If the trust and quitclaim deed were deemed valid, then decedent's girlfriend would be a beneficiary of decedent's estate. On the other hand, if the documents were deemed invalid, decedent died intestate and his estate would be distributed to his heirs. Decedent's daughter would be an heir. Decedent's girlfriend would not be an heir. Thus, who inherited from decedent's estate turned on whether or not decedent's purported trust was valid or not.

A primary point of contention was whether or not decedent signed the trust and quitclaim deed. Decedent's girlfriend claimed that decedent had signed the trust and quitclaim deed. A forensic document examiner testified that decedent had not signed the trust and quitclaim deed. While the documents reflected a signature, it was not decedent's signature. The trial judge then made the determination that decedent's girlfriend was not a credible witness while the forensic document examiner was a credible witness.

A footnote from the unpublished appellate opinion provides some context for this determination:

The court noted, "namely, [Jozelle] testified at her deposition that she did not know about the [p]urported [t]rust until after [d]ecedent's death, but at the unlawful detainer hearing she testified that [d]ecedent showed her the [p]urported [t]rust; and although [Jozelle] testified during her deposition that she never had any documents pertaining to the title of the [property], she testified during the trial that she helped [d]ecedent prepare the [q]uitclaim [d]eed and wrote portions of it."

Superior Court of San Diego County, Super. Ct. No. 37-2015-00005361-PR-LA-CTL