Thursday, 26 May 2016

Using Bayesian networks to assess new forensic evidence in an appeal case

If new forensic evidence becomes available after a conviction how do lawyers determine whether it raises sufficient questions about the verdict in order to launch an appeal? It turns out that there is no systematic framework to help lawyers do this. But a paper published today by Nadine Smit and colleagues in Crime Science presents such a framework driven by a recent case, in which a defendant was convicted primarily on the basis of sound evidence, but where subsequent analysis of the evidence revealed additional sounds that were not considered during the trial.

From the case documentation, we know the following:
  • A baby was injured during an incident on the top floor of a house
  • Blood from the baby was found on the wall in one of the rooms upstairs
  • On an audio recording of the emergency telephone call made by the suspect, a scraping sound (allegedly indicating scraping blood off a wall) can be heard
  • The suspect was charged with attempted murder 
The audio evidence played a significant role in the trial. But, during the appeal preparation process, the call was re-analysed by an audio expert on behalf of the defence, and four other sounds were identified on the same recording that, according to the expert, showed similarities to the original sound. In particular, one of these sounds was of interest because of background noise that could be heard simultaneously. The background noise was presumed to be the television, which was located in a different room to where the prosecution argued the scraping of the blood took place.  During this second sound, the TV (located downstairs) could be heard simultaneously on the emergency recording. A statement by the police reads that the suspect was frequently rubbing his face in their presence. The defence proposed that the incriminating sound in the recording was not blood scraping after all, but simply the defendant rubbing his face.

The framework described in Smit's paper is intended to overcome the gap between what is generally known from scientific analyses and what is hypothesized in a legal setting. It is based on Bayesian networks (BNs) which are a structured and understandable way to evaluate the evidence in the specific case context and present it in a clear manner in court. However, BN methods are often criticised for not being sufficiently transparent for legal professionals. To address this concern the paper shows the extent to which the reasoning and decisions of the particular case can be made explicit and transparent. The BN approach enables us to clearly define the relevant propositions and evidence, and uses sensitivity analysis to assess the impact of the evidence under different prior assumptions. The results show that such a framework is suitable to identify information that is currently missing, and clearly crucial for a valid and complete reasoning process. Furthermore, a method is provided whereby BNs can serve as a guide to not only reason with incomplete evidence in forensic cases, but also identify very specific research questions that should be addressed to extend the evidence base to solve similar issues in the future.

Full citation:
Smit, N. M., Lagnado, D. A., Morgan, R. M., & Fenton, N. E. (2016). "An investigation of the application of Bayesian networks to case assessment in an appeal case". Crime Science, 2016, 5: 9, DOI 10.1186/s40163-016-0057-6 (open source). Published version pdf.
The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of the UK through the Security Science Doctoral Research Training Centre (UCL SECReT) based at University College London (EP/G037264/1), and the European Research Council (ERC-2013-AdG339182-BAYES_KNOWLEDGE). 

The BN model (which is fully spceified in the paper) was built and run using the free version of AgenaRisk.