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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Eye Wtiness Identification Reform: Flaws in the ABA’s Jury Instruction on Cross-Race

At a groundbreaking two-day eye-ID litigation conference in NYC in March co-sponsored by the Eyewitness ID Reform Litigation Network, we addressed the issue of cross-race instructions, including the ABA version referred to this week at the Kansas Defenders blog. In short, while it is certainly good news that the ABA is paying attention to this issue, since the average instructions on eye-ID are woefully inadequate, the ABA instruction is far from ideal for the following reasons.

First, the initial language is conditional. “You ‘may’ consider, if you think it is appropriate …,” instead of you “should” consider.

Second, there is no mention of the numerous scientific studies that have shown, empirically, that cross-racial bias exists. In cases where experts have not testified at trial on the subject (i.e., most cases), jurors are left ignorant of the copious social science research on the topic. Instead of stating that “scientific studies have shown,” the court cites the amorphous “ordinary human experience.”

Third, the instruction suggests erroneously that sufficient contacts with another race may well overcome cross-race bias. Again, no science is cited. Moreover, it appears that contacts alone do not offset cross-race bias; rather, it is exposure combined with differentiating tasks (i.e., merely living in a neighborhood versus teaching a class of 30 in which one must distinguish among members) that might mitigate the effect, but even then the mitigation appears to be minimal.

Fourth, there is no discussion of prejudice (i.e., that cross-race bias exists in people seemingly without prejudice).

A better instruction (though not a perfect one), and one which I would encourage lawyers to propose instead of the ABA version, can be found in Johnson, Cross-Racial Identification Errors in Criminal Cases, 69 Cornell L. Rev. 934 (1984) [Mark Godsey]

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