NIST Experts Urge Caution in Using 'Likelihood Ratio' in Courtroom Presentations

Two experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are calling into question a method of presenting evidence in courtrooms, arguing that it risks allowing personal preference to creep into expert testimony and potentially distorts evidence for a jury.

The method involves the use of Likelihood Ratio (LR), a statistical tool that gives experts a shorthand way to communicate their assessment of how strongly forensic evidence, such as a fingerprint or DNA sample, can be tied to a suspect. In essence, LR allows a forensics expert to boil down a potentially complicated set of circumstances into a number—providing a pathway for experts to concisely express their conclusions based on a logical and coherent framework. LR’s proponents say it is appropriate for courtroom use; some even argue that it is the only appropriate method by which an expert should explain evidence to jurors or attorneys.

However, in a new paper published in the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, statisticians Steve Lund and Hari Iyer caution that the justification for using LR in courtrooms is flawed. The justification is founded on a reasoning approach called Bayesian decision theory, which has long been used by the scientific community to create logic-based statements of probability. But Lund and Iyer argue that while Bayesian reasoning works well in personal decision making, it breaks down in situations where information must be conveyed from one person to another such as in courtroom testimony.

These findings could contribute to the discussion among forensic scientists regarding LR, which is increasingly used in criminal courts in the U.S. and Europe.

> You can read the full article from NIST here.

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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)