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Comic Strip Censored for Honest Depiction of Race in Police Line-Ups

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"Okay, I know how bad it sounds, but they all really do look alike to me..." said the cartoon rabbit to police after viewing a "line-up" of several animals depicted on the other side of a glass partition.

Was the bunny racially insensitive? Did his comment invoke the cliché that all blacks look alike, or worse, that all black criminal suspects are indistinguishable?

Apparently, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer thought so. On January 13, the editors pulled the popular comic strip, "Non Sequitur," from the newspaper. In its place was a note that said the strip "was deemed objectionable."

Hundreds of angry readers found this decision objectionable, voicing their complaints in online posts that excoriated the paper for "outright censorship." The readers pointed out that the animals in the line-up were not the same color, size or even species. They noted that the bunny's comment was more apologetic than it was antagonistic. Mostly, they didn't understand the fuss. As one reader wrote: "The only thing I found controversial was the fact that you did not publish it."

I'm with the readers on this -- but for reasons that go beyond the ones they articulated. If anything, I think Wiley Miller's satirical strip didn't go nearly far enough to make the point: Eyewitnesses (the bunny, in this case) are abysmally inaccurate in identifying perpetrators who look different from themselves. For this reason, I would have supported running the strip even if the bunny was white and the suspects behind the glass were black.

We can't pretend that cross-racial misidentification isn't a significant problem in criminal cases. In fact, false witness testimony is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. More telling, 40% of these cases relied -- wrongly -- on identifications by witnesses whose race was different than the suspect they selected. Mostly, the mistaken witness was white and the suspect was black.

Experimental research further illuminates this problem. Virtually every study has found that whites can't get it right when asked to choose the correct photo from an array of possible black assailants. Same goes for Asians, though interestingly, people of color are generally more accurate in selecting white perpetrators.

A famous study of this issue spotlighted a harrowing case of cross-racial misidentification. The five victims of a violent crime spree, all of whom had spent hours with the perpetrator, each identified a man who subsequently was proved to have been hundreds of miles away at the time of the crime. When the actual perpetrator was caught, it was apparent that, other than his black skin, he bore no resemblance to the original suspect.

Back to the bunny. The wascally wabbit vanished from the pages of Cleveland's leading daily because he dared to admit a fallibility shared by humans. Have we sadly reached the point in our country where a major newspaper censors a comic strip as "objectionable" because it depicts the truth -- or more troubling, a tepid version of the whole truth?

How ironic that racial over-sensitivity created a missed opportunity for the public to learn that the victims of crime, and of wrongful convictions, are disproportionately black. And, that a sizable proportion of those responsible for their incarceration are witnesses who are white.

Keeping You Posted: The new year has provided a new beginning to several wrongfully convicted Chicago area residents. On Dec 12, 2011, I wrote about the plight of the Englewood Four and Juan Rivera, saying that the legal obligation of prosecutors was to seek justice, not merely convictions. Earlier this month, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller dropped the case against Rivera, ending his 19-year ordeal behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Two weeks later, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she would not re-try the quartet of Englewood youths who had been convicted based on false confessions. A tip of the hat to both county prosecutors -- and a hearty welcome home to the victims of injustice.