How accurate are cross-racial witness identifications?

Written by:  Tetra S. Shockley

The Teach Your Jurors Well: Using Jury Instructions to Educate Jurors About Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Eyewitness Testimony article articulates the challenges of convictions based solely on eyewitness testimony.  Mistaken identity from eyewitness testimony is the single largest cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases.  One of the greatest difficulties in eyewitness identification is cross-racial identification.  This occurs when a witness of a crime is of a different race than the perpetrator.  Many studies have shown that people have an easier time identifying members of their own race and tend to make more errors when having to identify members of other races.

Wrongful convictions based on cross-racial identifications have sparked debate about whether to allow expert testimony on the difficulties of making such identifications.  I believe the question is not whether to allow expert testimony in these cases, but how to implement it in a way that assists rather than hinder jurors.  Jurors are ordinary citizens who may or may not know the scientific or social data surrounding memory, how it works, and how it can be affected.  Likewise, they are not always aware that the “own-race” bias even exists.  It is the job of the courts to ensure that jurors have all the information they need to make an informed, educated decision based on the evidence.   This can be done through jury instructions, as well as expert testimony.  Currently, jurisdictions are divided and there is no uniform approach.

Derek Simmonsen, of the Maryland Law Review, gives an in depth look into the science behind eyewitness testimony (including cross-racial identifications), what jurors do and do not know about this topic, and the legal system’s struggle with the incorporation of eyewitness research in trials.

The link to Derek’s article: http://www.law.umaryland.edu/academics/journals/mdlr/print/70_4_1044.html

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