Forensic identification: the island problem and its generalisations



In forensics it is a classical problem to determine, when a suspect S shares a property Γ with a criminal C, the probability that S = C. In this article we give a detailed account of this problem in various degrees of generality. We start with the classical case where the probability of having Γ, as well as the a priori probability of being the criminal, is the same for all individuals. We then generalize the solution to deal with heterogeneous populations, biased search procedures for the suspect, Γ-correlations, uncertainty about the subpopulation of the criminal and the suspect, and uncertainty about theΓ-frequencies. We also consider the effect of the way the search for S is conducted, in particular when this is done by a database search. A returning theme is that we show that conditioning is of importance when one wants to quantify the ‘weight’ of the evidence by a likelihood ratio. Apart from these mathematical issues, we also discuss the practical problems in applying these issues to the legal process. The posterior probabilities of C = S are typically the same for all reasonable choices of the hypotheses, but this is not the whole story. The legal process might force one to dismiss certain hypotheses, for instance when the relevant likelihood ratio depends on prior probabilities. We discuss this and related issues as well. As such, the article is relevant both from a theoretical and from an applied point of view.