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Challenging racial bias in criminal cases

Some Minnesota residents have raised serious concerns about the impact of racial bias on criminal convictions and sentencing. Studies have shown that black defendants face disproportionately longer sentences and may be more likely to remain in pretrial detention. Some researchers have attributed this ongoing issue to implicit racial bias, when jurors or judges do not act consciously to perpetrate racial discrimination but rely on stereotypes about danger and criminality when evaluating a case. Other issues about race may also arise in the course of a case, including the unreliability of cross-racial witness identifications.

Legal researchers believe that criminal defense lawyers may be able to help overcome racial biases by speaking openly about the issue. Because implicit bias is unconscious, raising the issue to the level of consciousness may push judges and juries to consider more closely whether their evaluations of an individual could be related to racial stereotypes. For example, lawyers may ask the judge to explicitly mention the potential of racial bias or stereotype when giving instructions to the jury, while warning against reliance on gut feelings or personal like or dislike of a defendant or witness. They also advise defense lawyers to promote an individual narrative about their client in order to free them from the realm of stereotype.

Other racial issues may also be considered before a case goes to trial. For example, a lawyer may seek to suppress evidence on the basis that the police decided to search a client due to racial profiling or challenge the validity of a cross-racial witness identification. Expert testimony can help to bolster these claims.

When people face criminal charges, racial prejudice and stereotyping can be an additional weight to bear. A criminal defense attorney may help clients protect their rights, challenge unjust police practices and aim to prevent a conviction.