Andrew Elliot Carpenter
abstracted from: Andrew Elliot Carpenter, Chambers V.
Mississippi: the Hearsay Rule and Racial Evaluations of Credibility , 8
Washington and Lee Race and Ethnic Ancestry Law Journal 15 (Spring,
2002) (42 Footnotes)
One of the foundations of our adversary trial system is witness
testimony. The opportunity for people with knowledge of events to recite
facts, and the chance for the adverse party to cross-examine, is a
fundamental part of the truth-seeking function of a trial. An awareness
of how judges evaluate witness testimony is critical to eradicating the
unconscious racism in American society.
Unconscious racism arises out of viewpoints, fears and stereotypes of
which people are unaware. One federal judge wrote that "[t]he root
of unconscious racism can be found in the latent psyches of white
Americans that were inundated for centuries with myths and fallacies of
their superiority over the black race," and that a form of
"benign neglect" has replaced overt and intentional
discrimination. This subtle prejudice forms over years of accumulated
social and cultural experiences. It is an entrenched social bias, which
most white Americans would deny holding.
Unconscious racism often influences the perception of witness
credibility. Judges and lawyers bring preconceived and unconscious
stereotypes to trials, and this subtle bias can influence a trial's
course and outcome. One manifestation of this subtle bias is when judges
make credibility decisions based on their life experiences and
unconscious stereo-types of witnesses and parties. For example, a judge
who subconsciously distrusts black people may tend to disregard their
testimony as unreliable and use the hearsay rule to keep it out.
Specifically, if a black witness is testifying for a black defendant,
the judge may be more likely to exclude the testimony on the basis that
it lacks probative value or is unreliable.
In Chambers v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court held that the trial
judge misused the hearsay rule to exclude relevant testimony from black
witnesses that would have exonerated the black defendant, Leon Chambers.
Although the Supreme Court reached the just and proper result in this
case, it missed an opportunity to make a clear statement about race and
credibility decisions when it ignored the unconscious racism that
pervaded the entire investigation and trial. Chambers is an important
evidence case, but its importance could have been greater had the Court
used its review authority to diminish the effects of racism in the
courtroom. Because Chambers' appeal turned on evidentiary decisions made
by the trial court, and because nothing is known of the makeup of the
jury, this paper focuses on the prejudice of judges with respect to
credibility determinations, their role as evidentiary gatekeepers and
how this affects the fundamental right to a fair trial of minority
The goal of the hearsay rule is to eliminate irrelevant and
unreliable evidence and prevent the jury from basing its decision on
improper information. Yet, unconscious prejudices exacerbate this
already imprecise process. However, an increased awareness by judges and
lawyers of how racial stereotypes creep into trials is one way to
prevent prejudicial credibility judgments from hindering the adversarial
process and jeopardizing a defendant's right to a fair trial.
Chambers is a clear example of how race can cloud a hearsay analysis
and warp the fairness of a trial. The Supreme Court's opinion made a
clear statement about the parameters of the hearsay rule and its proper
use. However, it failed to address how race created the error in the
Part II of this paper recounts the facts in Leon Chambers' case and
explains why they are important in analyzing the Court's opinion from a
Part III explains how race affects witness credibility using
Part IV examines how the hearsay rule allows credibility prejudice to
bar the admission of reliable evidence.
Part V analyzes the Chambers facts from a critical race theory
Part VI demonstrates how the Supreme Court's opinion in Chambers
ignores the role of racial bias in the outcome of the trial.