Experienced criminal attorneys have long been aware of the inherent unreliability of cross racial identification. Cross-racial identification is the eyewitness identification of a suspect in a criminal case when the witness is a different race than the suspect. Recently, an appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York robbery case involving the defendant’s challenge to the lower court’s refusal to instruct the jury on the unreliability of cross-racial identifications. The appellate court determined that the lower court was in error when it refused the defendant’s request, reversed the defendant’s conviction, and ordered that a new trial be granted.
The defendant was arrested after two white men reported being robbed at knife point. The facts of both robberies were similar, in that the alleged perpetrator approached the victim, asked the time, and then grabbed the victim’s cell phone when they pulled it out to see the time. Each of the victims told police that the man who had robbed them was African-American and about six feet tall.
After his arrest, the defendant was placed in a line-up with several other individuals. One of the victims picked the defendant out immediately. The other victim was unsure until the police instructed all of the men in the line-up to ask “what time is it?” at which point the defendant was identified. There was no physical evidence tying the defendant to the crimes.