Dateline: December, 2010, Issue 4

When is playing the race card an effective strategy?

In criminal cases, the defense sometimes argues that the defendant was arrested and tried because of his or her race. This race card strategy seeks to make race salient in order to sway attitudes and beliefs of jurors or judges so as to find the defendant not guilty.

Hart and colleagues (2007) investigated the effectiveness of the race card strategy in jury trials. Jurors were presented a burglary trial in which a police officer testified to seeing the defendant throw a brick through a store window in an attempt to burglarize a business, and the defendant testified that the officer's testimony was not correct and that he was merely a passer-by. Certain jurors heard additional testimony:

The presentation of the citizen's complaint, by itself, did not affect jurors' determination of the defendant's guilt. The race card strategy had no effect on verdicts when the only evidence of racial bias was the citizen's complaint of racial slurs in an unrelated traffic stop.

The defendant's testimony that the officer used racial slurs, by itself, also did not affect jurors' determination of the defendant's guilt. The race card strategy had no effect when it hinged entirely on the defendant's testimony.

The race card strategy reduced verdicts of guilt when other evidence of the arresting officer's racist attitudes supported the testimony of the defendant. The combination of the defendant's testimony and the presentation of the citizen's complaint significantly reduced guilty verdicts. The combination of the defendant's testimony and a corroborating witness's testimony, regardless of race, reduced guilty verdicts.

Notably, the race card strategy never caused a "backfire" effect - no harm came to the defense from raising the race issue, even when only offering the defendant's uncorroborated testimony or only presenting the citizen's complaint.

The race card strategy can reduce guilty verdicts, and its effectiveness is contingent on the presence of additional evidence supporting a defendant's claims of racial bias.

Source Hart, C. L., Lopez, E. P., & Griffith, J.D. (2007). Evaluation of the race card strategy: The importance of supporting evidence. The Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology, 8, pp. 1-9.