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):

“In this case the identifying witness is of a different race than the defendant. In the experience of many it is more difficult to identify members of a different race than members of one’s own. Psychological studies support this impression. In addition, laboratory studies reveal that even people with no prejudice against other races and substantial contact with persons of other races still experience difficulty in accurately identifying members of a different race. Quite often people do not recognize this difficulty in themselves. You should consider these facts in evaluating the witness’s testimony, but you must also consider whether there are other factors present in this case that overcome any such difficulty of identification.”

The Network has sample motions for jury instructions on both estimator and system variables. Lawyers should be encouraged to tailor these to the facts of their cases and submit.

Attorneys should also look at the Long and Brink cases in Utah, and contact the Network about Utah’s sample eye-ID instructions on various factors from which, particularly when combined, is very comprehensive (though the cross-race portions can be made more robust).

Zeke Edwards
The Innocence Project


One Response to Flaws in the ABA’s Jury Instruction on Cross-Race

  1. If you want to hear a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this post for 4/5. Detailed info, but I have to go to that damn yahoo to find the missed pieces. Thanks, anyway!

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