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A Bayesian network approach to the database search problem in criminal proceedings

Alex Biedermann1*, Joëlle Vuille2 and Franco Taroni1

Author Affiliations

1 School of Criminal Justice, Institute of Forensic Science, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, 1015, Switzerland

2 Department of Criminology, Law and Society, Irvine, School of Social Ecology, University of California, 2330 SE II, Irvine, CA 92697, USA

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Investigative Genetics 2012, 3:16  doi:10.1186/2041-2223-3-16

Published: 1 August 2012



The ‘database search problem’, that is, the strengthening of a case - in terms of probative value - against an individual who is found as a result of a database search, has been approached during the last two decades with substantial mathematical analyses, accompanied by lively debate and centrally opposing conclusions. This represents a challenging obstacle in teaching but also hinders a balanced and coherent discussion of the topic within the wider scientific and legal community. This paper revisits and tracks the associated mathematical analyses in terms of Bayesian networks. Their derivation and discussion for capturing probabilistic arguments that explain the database search problem are outlined in detail. The resulting Bayesian networks offer a distinct view on the main debated issues, along with further clarity.


As a general framework for representing and analyzing formal arguments in probabilistic reasoning about uncertain target propositions (that is, whether or not a given individual is the source of a crime stain), this paper relies on graphical probability models, in particular, Bayesian networks. This graphical probability modeling approach is used to capture, within a single model, a series of key variables, such as the number of individuals in a database, the size of the population of potential crime stain sources, and the rarity of the corresponding analytical characteristics in a relevant population.


This paper demonstrates the feasibility of deriving Bayesian network structures for analyzing, representing, and tracking the database search problem. The output of the proposed models can be shown to agree with existing but exclusively formulaic approaches.


The proposed Bayesian networks allow one to capture and analyze the currently most well-supported but reputedly counter-intuitive and difficult solution to the database search problem in a way that goes beyond the traditional, purely formulaic expressions. The method’s graphical environment, along with its computational and probabilistic architectures, represents a rich package that offers analysts and discussants with additional modes of interaction, concise representation, and coherent communication.

Database search; Evidential value; Bayesian approach; Bayesian networks