When an examiner expresses an opinion along the lines of ‘the findings support one proposition over another proposition’, a question often follows. Specifically, does that opinion mean ‘it is more likely than not that the favored proposition actually happened’? The short answer is “no, it does not mean that.” At least, not necessarily.
In order to reach such a conclusion one must consider information that goes beyond the FDE evidence. As a rule, any opinion I provide will be constrained to the probability of the findings/observations in terms of one of at least two possible explanations. Ultimately, equating the two statements is inappropriate because they are not equivalent.
People sometimes question whether forensic work is scientific in nature. Given that the overall discipline is called ‘forensic science’ this is an interesting, if rather meaningless, question. I say ‘meaningless’ because, practically speaking, it is a non-issue.
Why? Simply because a court may choose to admit anyone as an expert, whether their expertise is scientific, purely experiential, or something else entirely. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider the issue, if only because forensic document examination is one of those disciplines where this is a common challenge — does it involve any “science” at all?
As a result, this topic is worth some discussion.
Years ago, in 2013 to be precise, I was invited to speak at the ICA conference held in Montréal, Québec. The conference had a special session on “distinguishing between science and pseudoscience in forensic acoustics”. Now, I am definitely not an expert in forensic acoustics. In fact, I know almost nothing about the field other than what I’ve read from time to time. So I wasn’t there to tell the audience anything about forensic acoustics, per se.
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?”, 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”. 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.
One of the strangest things I have heard raised in argument against the logical approach is that use of the approach means the expert’s testimony will end up impinging upon the authority of the Court. I have heard this a few times recently. I find this particularly troubling because it has come from lawyers. Unfortunately, this has always happened in circumstances where I could not actually discuss the matter with them.
As an objection to the logical approach, this is the most unexpected thing I have ever heard, without a doubt. In reality, proper application of the logical approach is one of the few ways to ensure that this issue will not happen.
To clarify, it is important to first understand the concept of “usurping the role of the Court” which means, in essence, to improperly influence the court’s procedures and decision-making, often by speaking inappropriately to or about the ultimate issue. Or, in other words, to impinge on the Court’s authority to make decisions about the ultimate issue (or ‘what happened’). To be sure, there is a legitimate concern that this could be a problem, particularly when the court is listening to an expert. As a result, the concept has been discussed literally for years and it is not a new concern.
In fact, it can be found in various codes and directives regarding expert evidence. Indeed, Justice Sopinka noted this precise issue in the 1994 R. v. Mohan ruling when he stated, in part, “There is also a concern inherent in the application of this criterion that experts not be permitted to usurp the functions of the trier of fact.”
One of the projects I had the pleasure to be involved in was the “Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination”. The WG was convened in 2015 to conduct a scientific assessment of the effects of Human Factors in Forensic Handwriting Examination, with the support of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Programs Office.
It was a lengthy process involving a lot of people drawn from many different domains. The authors of the report included Melissa K. Taylor, Carolyne Bird, Brett Bishop, Ted Burkes, Michael P. Caligiuri, Bryan Found, Wesley P. Grose, Lauren R. Logan, Kenneth E. Melson, Mara L. Merlino, Larry S. Miller, Linton Mohammed, Jonathan Morris, John Paul Osborn, Nikola Osborne, Brent Ostrum, Christopher P. Saunders, Scott A. Shappell, H. David Sheets, Sargur N. Srihari, Reinoud D. Stoel, Thomas W. Vastrick, Heather E. Waltke, and Emily J. Will. Read more
David H. Kaye (DHK) is one of my favourite writers. He is truly prolific and always manages to provide great insights for the reader. His grasp of statistics, logic, and the law is second-to-none, and his ability to communicate those very challenging topics to his audience is equally impressive.
As a mini introduction, David “…is Distinguished Professor, and Weiss Family Scholar in the School of Law, a graduate faculty member of Penn State’s Forensic Science Program, and a Regents’ Professor Emeritus, ASU.” If you would like to see a list of his publications check out http://personal.psu.edu/dhk3/cv/cv_pubs.html
Yes, DHK has written many things on many topics. But I would like to focus on his less formal writings from his blog Forensic Science, Statistics & the Law.