Reevaluating Cross-Racial Identification: NY Juries To Be Informed of Potential for Inaccuracy

Written By Caitlyn R. Buckman

 

On December 14, 2017, New York’s highest court ruled that trial courts are required, upon request, to give a jury instruction on the “cross-race effect” in criminal cases via People v. Boone. In other words, where a witness’ identification of a defendant is at issue, and the two parties appear to be of different races, juries need to be informed of the potential for inaccuracy.

Background

The case arose from a pair of robberies in 2011, where two white men both had their cell phones stolen in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Both victims described their attacker as a six-foot tall, African American man. Otis Boone, a man matching that general description, was suspected of the crimes. Boone was placed in a six-person lineup, where both victims separately identified him as the perpetrator, although the second victim was unsure until he heard Boone speak. Boone was then charged with two counts of robbery, though no physical evidence connected Boone to the crimes. Neither of the cell phones were recovered.

At trial, the court denied defense counsel’s request for a jury instruction regarding cross-racial identification, reasoning that there had been no expert testimony concerning its lack of reliability. The jury was instead given an expanded charge on eyewitness identification, and Boone was found guilty of both counts.

Boone appealed, arguing that he was denied a fair trial through the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury on the imprecision of cross-racial identification. The Appellate Division disagreed, noting that Boone had not placed the issue of cross-racial identification into evidence during the trial. The case then went to the Court of Appeals, which reversed, finding that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to give the requested jury charge.

How Reliable is Cross-Racial Identification?

Eyewitness testimony in general has faced scrutiny with regard to its reliability, as the Innocence Project has estimated that, nationwide, eyewitness misidentification has contributed to more than 70% of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.

Research suggests that eyewitness identification might be particularly inaccurate where the witness and the defendant are of different races. This “cross-race effect” asserts that people of all races tend to have difficulty distinguishing between members of races other than their own.

Court of Appeals Ruling

 In taking up Boone’s case, the Court discussed, at length, mistaken eyewitness identifications and the cross-race effect, noting that it has been recognized by trial courts in New York State and is “generally accepted” by experts in the field. Recognizing that the average juror is likely unfamiliar with the cross-race effect, and that expert testimony on the subject might be inadequate, the Court’s majority reached the following holding:

• where a witness’ identification of the defendant is at issue, and the two parties appear to be of different races,

• a court is required, upon request, to instruct the jury to consider whether the identifying witness and the defendant are of different races,

• and if so, to consider that some people have a greater difficulty in accurately identifying members of a different race than in accurately identifying members of their own race,

• and to consider whether the difference in race affected the accuracy of the witness’s identification.

In Associate Judge Michael Garcia’s concurrence, he expressed concern that the Court’s new rule will create confusion and hinder the discretion of trial courts. Maintaining that the trial court is in the best position to evaluate the evidence, Judge Garcia argued that the decision to deliver a jury instruction on the cross-race effect should remain within the trial court’s discretion.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Some supporters of the new rule say that it will help curb the number of wrongful convictions, which disproportionately affect African American men. Opponents, however, argue that sufficient safeguards already exist to protect against convictions based on faulty eyewitness testimony, including the trial court’s authority to exclude such evidence where its probative value is outweighed by prejudice to the defendant, as well as the defendant’s ability to cross-examine an identifying witness. 

In total, the new rule handed down by the Court of Appeals is vague in some respects. For example, what is the standard for determining whether an identifying witness and a defendant “appear” to be of different races? An answer was not provided. The Court also failed to provide any criteria for determining whether the witness’ identification of the defendant is “at issue[.]” Accordingly, trial courts will likely choose to provide the instruction upon request, even in ambiguous cases, out of concerns with getting reversed.

The result is also unclear if defense counsel fails to request the cross-racial identification instruction when it is available. There, a defendant who ends up with a conviction may appeal on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. If so, prosecutors may wish to request the instruction themselves to avoid a potential reversal on appeal.

Conclusion

While it is too early to tell what practical effect the Court’s decision will have on the prevalence of wrongful conviction based on eyewitness misidentifications, it is a noteworthy development in the law that will likely affect trial strategy for both criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors.

 

 

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Sources Cited

Ashley Southall, To Curb Bad Verdicts, Court Adds Lesson on Racial Bias for Juries, N.Y. Times (Dec. 15, 2017).

Eyewitness Misidentification, The Innocence Project.

Josefa Valasquez, Courts Required to Instruct Juries on Cross-Race Witness IDs, NY L. J. (Dec. 18, 2017).

People v. Boone, _NE 3d_, 2017 LEXIS 3722 (N.Y. 2017).

Rob Rosborugh, Court of Appeals Holds Trial Judges Must Give Cross-Racial Identification Jury Instruction in Almost Every Case, N.Y. Appeals.

Steven Ross Pomeroy, ‘They All Look Alike’: The Other-Race Effect, Forbes (Jan. 28, 2014).

Photo courtesy of KVNO News.

Pennsylvania Court Rules Judges Should Not Simply Divide Liability Equally Among Defendants

Written By John Joslin

On December 28, 2017, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided in Roverano v. John Crane, Inc. that the Fair Share Act applies to asbestos litigation. The Fair Share Act (Act) holds defendants responsible for a percentage of the pay for which they are found liable. Judge Alice Dubow, Judge Kate Ford Elliott, and Judge Carl Solano rejected arguments that the Act would not apply to strict liability claims, when apportioning liability among multiple defendants.

Background

William Roverano, a former PECO Energy employee, and his wife, Jacqueline Roverano, sued multiple defendants, claiming William had been exposed to asbestos-containing products, which ultimately caused him to develop lung cancer.

The verdict sheet listed eight joint tortfeasor co-defendants. The defendants sought a ruling by the trial court that, if any liability were to be found, the jury would, in turn, be required to apportion liability to the extent of each defendant’s percentage of harm caused.

The trial court judge refused to apply the Act to the case, leaving the jury without guidance as to how much each co-defendant should contribute to the overall award. Consequently, the judge divided the jury’s award of $6.3 million equally, assigning one eighth of the payment of the overall award to each of the eight co-defendants.

One of the co-defendants appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that under the Act, the jury should have apportioned the award by the percentage of liability for each co-defendant. In making this argument, the co-defendant argued for the plain meaning of the text, interpreting the Act to require the jury to apportion the liability, not the court. William, on the other hand, argued that the Act should not be applied to strict liability cases (which do not involve determinations of fault) in the same way that it is applied to negligence cases.

Fair Share Act

Before the enactment of the Fair Share Act, any joint tortfeasor found merely one percent liable could be held responsible to pay the entire verdict award, regardless of the percentage of fault for the other co-defendants. However, a joint tortfeasor who paid more than his or her proportionate share would have a right of contribution against a co-defendant who failed to pay their proportionate share.

The Act changed the law so that individual defendants are only responsible to pay for the percentage they are found liable, subject to only a few exceptions. These exceptions include intentional torts, intentional misrepresentation, hazardous substance releases, and “dramshop” liability. Additionally, an individual defendant can only be made to pay the full award if they are found more than 60 percent responsible for the wrong or injury.

As its name implies, the main purpose of enacting the Fair Share Act was to promote fairness. Determining precisely whether this Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling is fair, however, remains to be seen.

In the context of this case, those in favor of apportionment and the Act may assert that it is unfair for a defendant, who has a minor degree of fault as compared to that of the other defendants, to have to fully compensate the plaintiff if the other defendants cannot. They may argue that the joint and several liability system encourages plaintiffs to unfairly target those defendants who are known to have the means to fully compensate the plaintiff, far beyond what is actually owed by that defendant.

Proponents of maintaining the joint and several liability system, however, may make an argument that this ruling is fair. Supporters may assert that it would be unfair to shift to the plaintiff the risk of a co-defendant’s inability to pay the damages, in addition to having been left undercompensated. Consequently, they may argue this risk should be shifted to the other defendant(s) because they, too, are at fault, and it would be unfair to require a plaintiff to seek individual recovery from each defendant in a lawsuit based on the proportion of fault.

Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court found that the trial court erred as a matter of law by refusing to apply the Act.

“This was an action to hold Appellants strictly liable in tort for injuries allegedly caused by asbestos-containing products that they made or distributed,” the Court opined, “and the Fair Share Act explicitly applies to tort cases in which ‘recovery is allowed against more than one person, including actions for strict liability.’ Nothing in the statute makes an exception for strict liability cases involving asbestos.”

The plaintiffs had stated that the Act was silent on how liability among strictly liable joint tortfeasors is to be apportioned, and they argued the omission revealed that apportionment was meant to continue on a per capita basis. The Superior Court, however, stated the law clearly applies to tort cases involving multiple defendants, including strict liability cases, opining that the legislative history indicates the law intended to do away with per capita apportionment. “We, therefore, conclude that liability in strict liability cases must be allocated the same way as in other tort cases, and not on a per capita basis.”

The Superior Court remanded the case for a new trial on the question of apportionment liability.

Conclusion

Trial courts struggling with how to apportion liability against defendants in strict liability cases now have a bit of guidance after this decision by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. A liable defendant will only need to pay his or her share of the judgment, not the entire amount, unless one of the few exceptions applies.

Alongside the majority of jurisdictions, this decision bolsters Pennsylvania’s position on awards, which no longer follows the once-common joint and several liability system.

 

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Sources Cited

Andrew Ralston, Jr., The Fair Share Act Impacts the Strategic Planning of a Jury Trial, WhiteandWilliamsLLP (May 5, 2017).

Fair Share Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102 (a.1)–(a.2)

Max Mitchell, Superior Court Applies Full Force of Fair Share Act to Strict Liability, The Legal Intelligencer (Jan. 2, 2018).

Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., 2017 Pa. Super. LEXIS 1110 (December 28, 2017)

Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, PA Superior Court Answers Question of Whether Fair Share Act Applies to Strict Liability Asbestos Claims, JDSUPRA (Jan. 3, 2018).

Photo courtesy of Modern Restaurant Management.

Closed Chambers: Sexual Misconduct in the Federal Judiciary

Written By Nicolette J. Zulli

 

“Does this kind of thing turn you on?” Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allegedly asked his law clerk, Heidi Bond, while showing her a pornographic photo on his computer screen.

“No,” she responded, later explaining in a blog post that she remembers “feeling that [she] needed to not move, either physically or emotionally, that if [she] just treated this like this was normal it would stay normal and not get worse.”

Background

Bond is one of several law clerks that have come forward – either anonymously or on-the-record – with allegations against Kozinski. In addition to Bond, law clerks and externs in the Second Circuit also came forward with allegations.

The Ninth Circuit commenced an investigation in early December of 2017, until the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, petitioned Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to transfer the complaint and investigation to another Circuit to ensure confidence in impartiality. Chief Justice Roberts agreed, and the investigation and complaint were transferred on December 15, 2017, to the Second Circuit. Pending the inquiry into Kozinski’s conduct by the Second Circuit, Kozinski resigned from the bench on December 18, 2017.

A National Conversation

In the wake of Kozinski’s resignation, the federal judiciary has been thrust into the ongoing national conversation surrounding workplace sexual harassment and necessary reform measures. However, unlike the cases of powerful executives, such as Harvey Weinstein, or even Congressional leaders, like Senator Al Franken, a case of sexual harassment by a federal judge is a breed of particularly insidious abuse. This is, in part, due to the “open secret” nature of the law clerk-judge relationship, as well as the use of the doctrine of judicial confidentiality as a shield.

With this, the problem becomes the type of environment that is fostered in the judge’s chambers. If a harassing or abusive environment develops, it lends itself to potential claims of “judicial confidentiality” for personal misconduct in the course of a judge’s official duties. Unfortunately, there is no means of directly addressing this at the moment, as there are no individuals or institutions currently set up to specifically review whether the claimed-confidential information is actually “confidential” or not, as well as what the motive is for claiming that “confidentiality.”

Consequently, in devising an effective means of addressing these issues, preventative measures against abuse and sexual harassment in the federal judiciary should try to provide a way for complainants to safely pierce the veil of constitutionally-derived tenants of judicial confidentiality.

Revising the Handbook

The issue the Kozinski Scandal has presented in the court of public opinion is whether the federal judiciary is currently equipped to handle sexual harassment. A large group of current and former law clerks and law professors have answered with a resounding “No.”

Prior to Kozinski’s resignation, the language of the Law Clerk Handbook read as follows:

“Law clerks should be careful about publicly discussing their judge and chambers-related activities beyond case-related matters. For example, clerks should not publicly discuss their judge’s personal views about political, social, or other matters that could arise in litigation, nor should clerks reveal a judge’s travel plans. In general, clerks should respect and protect the privacy of their judge.”

This language did not make clear that confidentiality rules do not protect sexual harassment complaints against judges. Consequently, on December 18th, the same day as Kozinski’s resignation, the Federal Judicial Center revised the Law Clerk Handbook (Handbook) to address sex harassment complaints against judges. To achieve greater clarity, the revision qualified the above cited Handbook section with, “However, nothing in this handbook, or in the Code of Conduct, prevents a clerk, or any judiciary employee, from revealing misconduct, including sexual or other forms of harassment, by their judge or any person. Clerks are encouraged to bring such [harassment] matters to the attention of an appropriate judge or other official.”

Two days after the revision was added to the Handbook, 695 people – including 480 former judicial clerks, 83 current clerks, and 120 law professors – signed off on a letter to Chief Justice Roberts and other key members of the judiciary, calling for several changes to the federal judicial system that would better address possible sexual misconduct moving forward.

While there already exists a formal system to handle misconduct complaints against federal judges, it is a frail one. Employees are often not informed about reporting procedures and may not be sure if their complaints rise to a level that warrants reporting. Moreover, once a complaint is filed, a chief circuit judge must decide whether to appoint a special committee of judges to investigate, and if warranted, issue sanctions.

In addition to all of this, the Handbook neither specifies what constitutes “sexual harassment” or “misconduct,” nor details how to report it. The letter to Chief Justice Roberts states that “in the past, clerks have been told to report any harassment to their judge.” The problem, of course, is if the perpetrator happens to be the judge the clerk must report the harassment to.

To remedy these flaws, the letter to Chief Justice Roberts proposes six things: (1) [further] reforms to the Handbook to provide clarification and guidance on handling sexual harassment, (2) revisions to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, (3) that issues regarding harassment, confidentiality, and avenues for reporting misconduct be addressed with all law clerks during law clerk orientation, (4) the development of a confidential national reporting system, (5) that the federal judiciary take steps to reassure individuals who are considering reporting accounts of sexual misconduct or harassment against a fear of retaliation, and (6) the establishment of a working group of judges, current and former law clerks, and judiciary employees to further develop ways to address these issues.

What’s at Stake with Policy Reform

In addressing sexual harassment policy changes, it is notable that, unlike the shorter duration of status enjoyed by C-Suite executives and senators, federal judges have life tenure under Article III of the Constitution. Moreover, less than 20 federal judges throughout U.S. history have been removed through impeachment. These facts and circumstances suggest that the position of power afforded a federal judge is somewhat more “unfettered” than not.

Moreover, while career clerks are more long-term and cover a wide range of ages and experience levels, term clerks are typically younger, more inexperienced attorneys. All clerks generally work in close-quarters with their judges. In addition, within the legal profession, clerkships are considered one of the more prestigious positions available to recent law school graduates, as they often open doors to higher-paying private sector jobs and higher-level public sector positions. Indeed, some federal judges (like Kozinski) are considered Supreme Court “feeder” judges, where they are known to facilitate opportunities for their former clerks to clerk with certain Supreme Court Justices. For all of these reasons, it is understandable why clerks’ concerns with sexual misconduct reporting and investigations in the federal judiciary call for swift action and redress.

There is also a significant power imbalance between judges and clerks, as well as other court staff, that further compounds the potential threat of abuse. This is not to say that other boss-employee relationships do not prescribe to the same fundamental power-imbalance. However, the nature of the federal judge-law clerk relationship is historically insulated through well-established internal safeguards.

Thus, the ironic reality presented by the Kozinski Scandal is this: All federal judges are charged with the ultimate constitutional duty to “interpret and say what the law is.” Some, unfortunately, abuse that very duty by imposing judicial confidentiality on their subordinates as a shield. This, in turn, allows some judges to commit emotional, physical, mental, and sexual abuse against their employees, with no standardized accountability.

Moving Forward

Members of the legal profession should back the implementation of the proposed measures in the letter presented by the 695 law clerks and professors sent to Chief Justice Roberts and members of the judiciary on December 20, 2017. Further, two challenges must be addressed in order to effectively implement the proposed reform measures presented in the letter: judicial confidentiality and judicial independence.

On December 21, 2017, Chief Justice Roberts called for a review of the federal judiciary’s procedures for protecting court employees from misconduct. He made this request as the letter was being circulated. Then, on December 31, 2017, Chief Justice Roberts, in his annual year-end report, stated that “the judiciary will begin 2018 by undertaking a careful evaluation of whether its standards of conduct and its procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior are adequate to ensure an exemplary workplace for every judge and every court employee.”

In addition, Chief Justice Roberts said he asked the federal judiciary’s director of the administrative office to form a working group to examine the courts’ practices and recommend necessary changes to codes of conduct, employee guidance on reporting misconduct and its own rules for investigating complaints.

From a practical standpoint, revisions to the Law Clerk Handbook and Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, and requiring education on misconduct procedures to law clerks during orientation, are changes that can be made without much difficulty.

In contrast, the proposal of a national reporting system – a reform measure that stands to have the greatest impact – will likely be the most difficult to establish. The idea itself is akin to that of a Human Resources department in a corporation, or a Title IX Office on a college campus, both of which serve as watchdog entities that regulate corporate and campus abuse and sexual misconduct. The letter did not propose details on where the misconduct reports would be submitted and who or what entity would review the misconduct reports in such national system.

Moving forward into 2018, and following the completion of the judiciary’s evaluation, it will be of interest to learn whether the Third Branch is able to adopt some version of this proposed national reporting system that sufficiently balances concerns of preserving judicial confidentiality and independence against ensuring adequate workplace protections of clerks and employees of federal judges.

 

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Sources Cited

Brett Samuels, Fed. Law Clerks Demand Changes to Judiciary’s Sexual Misconduct Policies, The Hill, Dec. 20, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/365938-federal-law-clerks-seek-changes-to-judiciarys-sexual-misconduct.

Yuki Noguchi, Sexual Harassment Cases Often Rejected by Courts, NPR, Nov. 28, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/28/565743374/sexual-harassment-cases-often-rejected-by-courts.

Richard Wolf, Prominent Fed. Appeals Court Judge Accused of Sexual Harassment Retires, USA Today, Dec. 18, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/12/18/prominent-federal-appeals-court-judge-accused-sexual-harassment-retires/960662001/.

Dana Liebelson et al., Law Clerks Say Fed. Judiciary Isn’t Equipped to Handle Sexual Harassment, Huffpost, Dec. 20, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/federal-court-clerk-sexual-harassment-judges_us_5a3acf5ae4b025f99e1449f8.

Ruth Marcus, Editorial, The Creepiest Sexual-Harassment Story We Aren’t Talking About, Wash. Post, Dec.15 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-creepiest-sexual-harassment-story-we-arent-talking-about/2017/12/15/8efee490-e1e1-11e7-bbd0-9dfb2e37492a_story.html?utm_term=.46f664da0bbe.

Debra Cassens Weiss, Revision to Fed. Law Clerk Handbook Addresses Sexual Harassment Complaints, ABA Journal, Dec. 19, 2017, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/revision_to_federal_law_clerk_handbook_addresses_sex_harassment_complaints.

Joan Biskupic, Chief Justice Roberts Calls for Review of Procedures for Protecting Court Employees from Misconduct, CNN, Dec. 20, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/20/politics/roberts-judicial-misconduct/index.html.

Dahlia Lithwick, He Made Us All Victims and Accomplices, Slate, Dec. 13, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/12/judge_alex_kozinski_made_us_all_victims_and_accomplices.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_tw_top.

N.Y. Times Editorial Board, Who Will Judge the Judge?, N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/opinion/kozinski-sexual-harassment-resign.html.

The Doctrine of Judicial Privilege: The Historical and Constitutional Basis Supporting a Privilege for The Federal Judiciary, 44 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 213 (1987), http://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlulr/vol44/iss1/11.

Kathryn Rubino, Judge Kozinski Accused of Sexual Misconduct, Above the Law, Dec. 8, 2017, https://abovethelaw.com/2017/12/judge-kozinski-accused-of-sexual-misconduct/.

Heidi Bond, #MeToo: Kozinski, CourtneyMilan.com, http://www.courtneymilan.com/metoo/kozinski.html.

Valerie Volcovici, Chief Justice Orders Review of Sexual Harassment Standards in the U.S. Judiciary, Reuters, Dec. 31, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-harassment/chief-justice-orders-review-of-sexual-harassment-standards-in-u-s-judiciary-idUSKBN1EP0MP

Staci Zaretsky, The Law Schools Where the Most Graduates Got Federal Clerkships (2016), Above the Law, May 30, 2017, https://abovethelaw.com/2017/05/the-law-schools-where-the-most-graduates-got-federal-clerkships-2016/.

Univ. of Wis. School of Law Board of Regents, What Are the Benefits of Clerking?, http://law.wisc.edu/career/whywouldiwanttoclerk.html.

Dist. of Fla., Clerkships and Internships, http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov/?page_id=269 (last updated 2017).

Stephanie Francis Ward, Lucky 36: What It Takes to Land a Supreme Court Clerkship, ABA Journal, Oct. 1, 2012, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/podcast_monthly_episode_31.

Judicial Conference of the United States, Comm. on Codes of Conduct, Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics for Fed. Judicial Law Clerks 1–2 (4th ed. 2013).

Photo Courtesy of Toledo Blade.