The Guardian, Angela Saini, 2 October 2011
... At its heart, this is a story about chance. And it begins with a convicted killer, "T", who took his case to the court of appeal in 2010. Among the evidence against him was a shoeprint from a pair of Nike trainers, which seemed to match a pair found at his home. While appeals often unmask shaky evidence, this was different. This time, a mathematical formula was thrown out of court. The footwear expert made what the judge believed were poor calculations about the likelihood of the match, compounded by a bad explanation of how he reached his opinion. The conviction was quashed.
But more importantly, as far as mathematicians are concerned, the judge also ruled against using similar statistical analysis in the courts in future. It's not the first time that judges have shown hostility to using formulae. But the real worry, say forensic experts, is that the ruling could lead to miscarriages of justice.
Specifically, he means a statistical tool called Bayes' theorem. Invented by an 18th-century English mathematician, Thomas Bayes, this calculates the odds of one event happening given the odds of other related events. ...
In the shoeprint murder case, for example, it meant figuring out the chance that the print at the crime scene came from the same pair of Nike trainers as those found at the suspect's house, given how common those kinds of shoes are, the size of the shoe, how the sole had been worn down and any damage to it. Between 1996 and 2006, for example, Nike distributed 786,000 pairs of trainers. This might suggest a match doesn't mean very much. But if you take into account that there are 1,200 different sole patterns of Nike trainers and around 42 million pairs of sports shoes sold every year, a matching pair becomes more significant.
The data needed to run these kinds of calculations, though, isn't always available. And this is where the expert in this case came under fire. The judge complained that he couldn't say exactly how many of one particular type of Nike trainer there are in the country. National sales figures for sports shoes are just rough estimates.
And so he decided that Bayes' theorem shouldn't again be used unless the underlying statistics are "firm". The decision could affect drug traces and fibre-matching from clothes, as well as footwear evidence, although not DNA.
Dave, from my experience with lawyers, the story seems quite plausible to me, but will ask UK academics if this was a joke.
I was told at a workshop in England in 2006 that a judge in the UK had recently forbidden the use of Bayes Theorem in courts in the UK. So there's some sort of funny meme going on here. I'd recommend caution in interpreting this news story.