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New York’s highest court on Thursday told judges across the state that defendants are now entitled to have jurors instructed about the cross-racial identification problem, The New York Times reported. The criminal justice system has long known that eyewitnesses often misidentify suspects from a different race. New York is just one of four states to take this step in a system that needs reform.

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“This decision helps level the playing field and prevent future wrongful convictions, especially of defendants of color, based on scientifically dubious cross-racial identifications,” said Marne Lenox of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a legal brief in support of the proposal for the jury instructions.

This ruling stems from the appeal of Otis Boone, a Black man convicted of robbery on the testimony of two White men. Simply stated, decades of research confirms that White people have trouble telling Blacks apart. At least 247 of the 353 convictions overturned on DNA evidence stemmed from misidentification, The Innocence Project reported. Black men were defendants in more than 200 of the exonerations that the organization handled. Eyewitness accounts are powerful, but only 36 percent of jurors know about the cross-racial identification problem.

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The New York Court of Appeals took a major step forward that other states should follow. At the same time, reforms are needed long before criminal cases reach the trial stage. Laura Connelly of the University of Michigan Law School points out that the cross-racial identification problem could be filtered at the police lineup stage. First, though, investigators must realize their own racial bias, which requires training, she said. The Innocence Project recommends using lineup fillers (the non-suspects) who look like the suspect–which makes sense but doesn’t always happen. The organization adds that witnesses should be told that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup to reduce the pressure to pick someone. And for accountability purposes, the American Bar Association calls for the video recording of lineups.

SOURCE:  New York Times

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