Many years ago I came across an interesting, if limited, discussion in a blog post entitled “Expert testimony in pattern evidence cases – is absolute uniqueness necessary?”1,2 That post is dated Sept 4, 2009, shortly after the publication of National Academy of Science’s report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward”.3 But the basic question posed in it is still relevant today. I would say that most forensic practitioners today would answer the question about the necessity of ‘absolute uniqueness’ in the negative. However, their individual reason(s) for their answer will still vary.
For many people, ‘absolute uniqueness’ is mainly a ‘forbidden’ concept because of some policy they must follow, or because of a more personal recognition of an (often vague) issue relating to the ‘limits of science’. For other people the matter is a well-defined issue in science and logic dictated by the nature and limits of information (knowledge), what information can really tell us about the world, and how information can and should be used to update beliefs about the world. For the latter group (which is steadily increasing in size as awareness and understanding improves), the concept of ‘absolute uniqueness’ is neither required, nor even beneficial in forensic work.
There has been a LOT of discussion about this in recent years, but I found the blog post interesting at the time even though it focused mainly on latent print examination. I feel that not much has changed since then so, even now, it deserves recognition and consideration. Since the blog itself is no longer active, I have reposted the complete series of messages here (pulling them from archive.org).
The topic started with a post from the moderator (Barry Fisher) who wrote:
Expert testimony in pattern evidence cases – is absolute uniqueness necessary?
What information is needed to form a conclusion about an identification? Do conclusions require statistical data, as in DNA cases, to offer an opinion? Is it possible to state that two items of evidence come from a sole source? What may an expert opine when no statistical data is readily available and only experience suggests a conclusion? The National Academy report raises some profound questions and some intriguing research possibilities. But in the interim, while we wait for academics to study the multitude of pattern evidence forensic scientists encounter in their day to day work, who may report cases and testify in court? Readers are invited to speak to these issues.
This was followed by a series of 7 responses from various people. I’ll present those in sequence (with minor spelling corrections relative to the original posts):
- Original citation: http://myblogs.informa.com/forensics/2009/09/04/expert-testimony-in-pattern-evidence-cases-is-absolute-uniqueness-necessary/
- Archived version: https://web.archive.org/web/20100825230036/http://myblogs.informa.com/forensics/2009/09/04/expert-testimony-in-pattern-evidence-cases-is-absolute-uniqueness-necessary/
- National Research Council Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward, National Academy Press, Washington, D. C, 2009 (available here)