Saturday, March 6, 2010

Legal Narratives of Identification - The Curious Case of Children's Storybooks

It should hardly come as any surprise that children's storybooks are rich sources of legal normativity and sources for legal analysis (see for example, the scholarship of Desmond Manderson and Shauna Van Praagh). In a previous posting, I touched upon the linkages between certain children's stories and their emphasis on breaking norms when doing so would be justified in order to stop a greater harm from being perpetrated.

In this post, I want to switch gears and address another series of considerations that have cropped up as I have been reading a host of children's books to my daughter. Given her rather young age, my spouse and I have devoted a considerable amount of time to reading my daughter books that emphasize identification and characterization as a central theme. A key example of this is the Usbourne "touchy-feely" picture book collection - particularly, the That's Not My Baby series. This series of picture books are aimed at developing the sensory and language awareness of infants and toddlers.

In these particular books, the narrative is a simple one, a little mouse goes out in search of a baby it identifies with and calls its own. With each baby it comes across, the mouse identifies something that a baby is wearing or possesses that distinguishes it from the baby it is searching for. Each item that is identified by text has a particular texture that the child who is being read the book can touch and associate with - e.g. "That's not my baby, her teddy [bear] is too fluffy"; "That's not my baby, her blanket is too silky"; "That's not my baby, her mittens are too fuzzy."

While the primary objective of this book (and others) as previously stated is to develop a child's sensory and language awareness, I argue that this development can have considerable implications later in life when we consider issues of identification of objects and people who are associated with such objects within the litigation process. These books help to train children to more acutely identify individuals and the objects they are wearing or possess, rather than simply latching on to more simple and base characterizations rooted in racial categories. When one looks to the sample pages of That's not my baby, one notes that the author, Fiona Watt avoids having the mouse identify the baby in question by skin colour, but looks to other identifying objects and/or textures that identify them as being distinguishable from the baby the mouse is searching for. This is not to suggest that identifying an individual's ethnic background is altogether invalid if coupled with other identifiable characteristics - however when race becomes the sole identifying feature, there may be a higher propensity for inaccurate identifications and worse, in the context of criminal prosecutions, such identifications may lead to wrongful convictions.

The need for greater accuracy in identifications was highlighted to me in one of the more poignant moments I experienced during my law school education. During criminal procedure, my professor wanted to sensitize the class to the fallibility of human perception with respect to witness identification and its ramifications on the rights of the accused. During one class, an individual who had been sitting amongst us for a certain duration of the lecture (but who was clearly someone no one likely recognized as part of our class prior to that day), got up and walked down the middle aisle that separates the classroom. The individual gave the professor a manila envelope, shook his hand, and then exited the classroom. From the time the individual stood up, walked to the front of the class and then left, roughly 10 to 15 seconds had probably elapsed. The envelope contained sheets of paper that were passed out to us. Each sheet contained a series of questions aimed at determining the extent of our ability to identify particular identifying features about this person, including their ethnic background, gender, what they were wearing, etc. The one thing we could all identify was that this person was African-American. Most correctly identified him as a male, although one or two didn't. As to this gentleman's other identifying features and details about what he was wearing, we were far from unanimous or correct.

This gentleman's experience with wrongful identifications was however far from academic. His name was Neil Miller. Some years prior, he had been wrongfully identified by a rape survivor and was convicted on the basis of her false identification which was also assisted with some improper influence by law enforcement. Thanks to subsequent DNA testing, Miller was freed but not before enduring several years of life in prison which took its toll on him.

Eyewitness and victim testimony are not going to go away, nor should they be expected to. But as my classroom experience perhaps demonstrates, misidentifying an individual can have serious ramifications on the liberty of another. Part of this is rooted in the poor training (if any) many of us have (including myself) in identifying critical details about others we may see rather quickly that move beyond the "basics" of race and gender (and in the case of the latter - at least one of my fellow colleagues in class identified Mr. Miller as a woman).

While identifying details may not come naturally to many of us, it can be cultivated. Perhaps by actively training individuals from a very young age to be observant and critical in their observations and maintain this skill into adulthood, we may be able to foster their capacities to provide more detailed and accurate identifications when called upon to do so.

It is worth noting that the development of this skill is not just relevant or important to individuals identifying suspects in a police line-up followed by testimony in court. It may be useful when a person is required to provide critical identifying information or characteristics in helping to find an abducted child or assisting law enforcement in tracking a wanted criminal.

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