Artificial Intelligence used for first time at Old Bailey by legal team in new Rikki Neave killing trial

Artificial intelligence is being deployed to defend the suspect in a murder trial at the Old Bailey in the first known use of machine technology at the country’s top criminal court.

James Watson is due to go on trial in January charged with murdering six-year-old Rikki Neave in November 1994. The schoolboy was found naked and strangled in woodland in Peterborough in November 1994 with his uniform dumped in a bin.

Rikki’s mother Ruth Neave was prosecuted for murder in 1996 but acquitted and convicted instead of child neglect and given a seven-year prison sentence.

The crime has remained unsolved and Watson, who was charged following a decision to reopen the investigation in 2015, and denies the offence.

An eight-week trial is scheduled at the Old Bailey and his defence lawyers have revealed that they have been using AI software to analyse more than 10,000 documents in an attempt to show his innocence.

They say the technology, produced by the London and Cambridge-based company Luminance, has helped to speed up their examination of the evidence and search for patterns and connections that might be unapparent or missed during human inspection.

The findings that have been uncovered cannot be disclosed ahead of the trial, but Sally Hobson, Watson’s lead defence barrister from The 36 Group chambers in London, said the software was providing important benefits.

“We have been served thousands of pages of evidence and material that we have to digest in a limited number of days,” she said. “The court digital case system has massive limitations: we’re not allowed to put any unused material on there, it can’t read handwritten documents and it will only throw up the exact things that you search for.

“The AI learns what to search for, reads and understands and can surface in hours what would take months to find manually. The accuracy it provides is also a saving for the taxpayer.”

She said the technology could also speed up efforts to reduce the backlog of court trials that has been added to by the delays caused by the coronavirus.

She added: “The lawyers will still make their decisions and the judges would still judge on it, but they will be aided by technology to really enhance and accelerate these cases.”

Charlotte Golunski, a senior executive at Luminance, whose security advisers include the former MI5 director general Lord Evans of Weardale, said the technology involved a “combination of unsupervised and supervised machine learning, natural language processing and pattern recognition techniques” to analyse material.

“If you’re looking through witness statements of people referencing that they saw a man with a dog and you did a keyword search for ‘dog’ or ‘alsatian’ that might miss the fact that someone else called it ‘german shepherd’ or ‘mongrel’ or ‘mutt.’

““Luminance is able to understand that you’re looking for a man with a dog, and pull all relevant results to the lawyer.  It can help find that golden nugget.”

The use of AI in case preparation is already common in commercial cases and the technology has also been deployed by the Serious Fraud Office during its investigations into the engineering giant Rolls Royce.

It is expected to become a feature of criminal investigations too as the volume of digital data stored on phones and other devices that might require examination becomes ever greater. One reason is increased efficiency and speed, while another is that having machines carry out analysis can be far cheaper and potentially more accurate than using people.

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