Calculating and understanding the value of any type of match evidence when there are potential testing errors

Artificial Intelligence and Law 22 (1):1-28 (2014)


It is well known that Bayes’ theorem (with likelihood ratios) can be used to calculate the impact of evidence, such as a ‘match’ of some feature of a person. Typically the feature of interest is the DNA profile, but the method applies in principle to any feature of a person or object, including not just DNA, fingerprints, or footprints, but also more basic features such as skin colour, height, hair colour or even name. Notwithstanding concerns about the extensiveness of databases of such features, a serious challenge to the use of Bayes in such legal contexts is that its standard formulaic representations are not readily understandable to non-statisticians. Attempts to get round this problem usually involve representations based around some variation of an event tree. While this approach works well in explaining the most trivial instance of Bayes’ theorem (involving a single hypothesis and a single piece of evidence) it does not scale up to realistic situations. In particular, even with a single piece of match evidence, if we wish to incorporate the possibility that there are potential errors (both false positives and false negatives) introduced at any stage in the investigative process, matters become very complex. As a result we have observed expert witnesses (in different areas of speciality) routinely ignore the possibility of errors when presenting their evidence. To counter this, we produce what we believe is the first full probabilistic solution of the simple case of generic match evidence incorporating both classes of testing errors. Unfortunately, the resultant event tree solution is too complex for intuitive comprehension. And, crucially, the event tree also fails to represent the causal information that underpins the argument. In contrast, we also present a simple-to-construct graphical Bayesian Network (BN) solution that automatically performs the calculations and may also be intuitively simpler to understand. Although there have been multiple previous applications of BNs for analysing forensic evidence—including very detailed models for the DNA matching problem, these models have not widely penetrated the expert witness community. Nor have they addressed the basic generic match problem incorporating the two types of testing error. Hence we believe our basic BN solution provides an important mechanism for convincing experts—and eventually the legal community—that it is possible to rigorously analyse and communicate the full impact of match evidence on a case, in the presence of possible errors

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