Tuesday, December 27, 2016

NCFS Draft Views on "Statistical Statements in Forensic Testimony"

The period for comments on the second public draft of a proposed National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) views document on Statistical Statements in Forensic Testimony opened today and will close on January 25, 2017. Comments can be submitted at regulations.gov, Docket No. DOJ-LA-2016-0025.

The full document can be downloaded from https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOJ-LA-2016-0025-0001. It defines "statistical statements" broadly, to encompass quantitative or qualitative statements [that] indicate the accuracy of measurements or observations and the significance of these findings." "These statistical statements," it explains, "may describe measurement accuracy (or conversely, measurement uncertainty), weight of evidence (the extent to which measurements or observations support particular conclusions), or the probability or certainty of the conclusions themselves."

The draft summarizes the views as follows (footnote omitted):
1. Forensic experts, both in their reports and in testimony, should present and describe the features of the questioned and known samples (the data), and similarities and differences in those features as well as the process used to arrive at determining them. The presentation should include statements of the limitations and uncertainties in the measurements or observations.

2. No one form of statistical calculation or statement is most appropriate to all forensic evidence comparisons or other inference tasks. Thus, the expert needs to be able to support, as part of a report and in testimony, the choice used in the specific analysis carried out and the assumptions on which it was based. When the statistical calculation relies on a specific database, the report should make clear which one and its relevance for the case at hand.

3. The expert should report the limitations and uncertainty associated with measurements and the inferences that could be drawn from them. This report might take the form of an interval for an estimated value, or of separate statements regarding errors and uncertainties associated with the analysis of the evidence. If the expert has no information on sources of error in measurements and inferences, the expert must state this fact.

4. Forensic science experts should not state that a specific individual or object is the source of the forensic science evidence and should make it clear that, even in circumstances involving extremely strong statistical evidence, it is possible that other individuals or objects could possess or have left a similar set of observed features. Forensic science experts should confine their evaluative statements to the support that the findings provide for the claim linked to the forensic evidence.

5. To explain the value of the data in addressing claims as to the source of a questioned sample, forensic examiners may:
A. Refer to relative frequencies of individual features in a sample of individuals or objects in a relevant population (as sampled and then represented in a reference database). The examiner should note the uncertainties in these frequencies as estimates of the frequencies of particular features in the population.

B. Present estimates of the relative frequency of an observed combination of features in a relevant population based on a probabilistic model that is well grounded in theory and data. The model may relate the probability of the combination to the probabilities of individual features.

C. Present probabilities (or ratios of probabilities) of the observed features under different claims as to the origin of the questioned sample. The examiner should note the uncertainties in any such values.

D. When the statistical statement is derived from an automated computer-based system for making classifications, present not only the classification but also the operating characteristics of the system (the sensitivity and specificity of the system as established in relevant experiments using data from a relevant population). If the expert has no information or limited information about such operating characteristics, the expert must state this fact.
6. Not all forensic subdisciplines currently can support a probabilistic or statistical statement. There may still be value to the factfinder in learning whatever comparisons the expert in those subdisciplines has carried out. But the absence of models and empirical evidence needs to be expressed both in testimony and written reports.
The document will be discussed at the January 2017 NCFS meeting. A final version should be up for a vote at the (final?) Commission meeting, on April 10-11, 2017.

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