How Cross-Race Misidentification Leads To Wrongful Convictions


Cross-race misidentifications accounted for 40 percent of the first 179 cases analyzed in which people were exonerated of their crimes through DNA evidence, says an Innocence Project finding reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ronald Cotton, a black man misidentified in a rape case, said that he and the man who eventually was convicted don’t look anything alike, “But about 90 percent of white people think all black people look alike. It’s sad but it’s true.”

While most experts believe that the cross-race effect is a natural part of human development, that doesn’t make it any less of a problem in the criminal justice system, says Christian Meissner of the National Science Foundation. U.S. courts rely more heavily on eyewitness identifications to convict defendants than in several other nations, he said, and “we also know that whites are overrepresented as victims and witnesses and blacks are overrepresented as defendants” in criminal cases. While racial prejudice is not the driving force in our struggle to recognize faces outside our own group, the cross-race phenomenon “is often the start of a process that leads to wrongful conviction,” he said. “What happens is, a witness identifies a suspect. The suspect then becomes the culprit. The police stop gathering information on any other possible suspects. Then, the officer goes to a forensic scientist and says, ‘I have a suspect; I know it’s my guy, but I need the evidence to go with it.’ And finally, he has the suspect come in and he interrogates him in ways that too often lead to a false confession.”

Comments are closed.