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Colorism, Racism, and the Criminal Justice System: How is an Innocent Black Man in Prison for Life?

Published onSep 30, 2021
Colorism, Racism, and the Criminal Justice System: How is an Innocent Black Man in Prison for Life?


The United States criminal justice system is a system predicated on the existence and reification of racism itself. Frequently, black and brown men are victims of the criminal justice system through racial profiling, wrongful arrests, and discriminatory sentencing practices. Dedrick Brown experienced all of the aforementioned practices when he was arrested in 2012, along with Travares Santiago and Willie Barney. Through this case study, we seek to illuminate the racial and color profiling that takes place in the largest South Florida criminal justice system. From a racialized organization and Critical Race theory framework we unravel the racist linchpins that have resulted in the lifelong sentence of an innocent man. We provide a qualitative analysis of reports and testimonies from the case that reveal the construction of a guilty verdict through colorism and faulty testimonies.


On September 22, 2012, officers pulled over a red Pontiac at 6600 NW 22th Ave., Miami, Florida. They arrested three Black adolescents: Dedrick Brown, Travares Santiago, and Willie Barney for the suspected armed robbery of an off-duty Miami-Dade detective that took place in Little Haiti. The three adolescents, two of which are considered “dark skinned,” were charged with the armed robbery of a Miami detective. Accused of robbing an off-duty detective, Officer Wislyn Joseph, for jewelry, there is evidence to suggest these men did not commit the crime they were convicted of. This article provides a case study of Dedrick Brown, a tall, dark-skinned Black man, who was twenty at the time of his arrest, now a twenty nine year old, and is currently serving the eighth year of a lifelong prison sentence for this crime. By analyzing the case details, we find themes of colorism and bias in the criminal justice system played a vital role in the wrongful arrest and incarceration of a dark skinned black man. Examining the case in great detail, this article unravels how the lifelong sentence is due to institutionalized racism and colorism in the criminal justice system.

A growing body of research shows that the criminal justice system has a history of preying on Black men, in particular poor Black men and dark Black men (Western 2006; Alexander 2010; Platt 2019). Objective laws are practiced subjectively and disproportionately applied to darker skin people. Criminal justice actors apply racial stereotypes more easily to Black people that appear more stereotypically Black than Black people who appear less stereotypically Black (Blair, Judd, & Fallman, 2004; Maddox, 2004; Maddox & Gray 2002, Eberhardt et. al, 2006). People correlate stereotypically Black phenotypes with criminality. In other words, the more stereotypically Black a person appears to be, the more criminal they are thought to be (Eberhardt, 2004; Eberhardt, 2006). This bias in judgement has led to harsher sentencing decisions for darker and more stereotypical-looking Black defendants (Blair, Judd, & Chapleau, 2004). The present study provides a case study analysis where this bias is applied to the case of Dedrick Brown.

Though the criminal justice system gives the illusion of operating in an objective fashion, no system is objective. These very systems are made of individuals with lived experiences and consequently, biases. Even superficially objective members of the criminal justice system have biases that they take with them to their jobs. No one, not the officer, the judge, nor the state attorney operates as an objective vessel within the system. Therefore, it is no surprise that Dedrick, who never pleaded guilty, not when he was interrogated in 2012, nor in 2021, was judged to be guilty for a crime in which he clearly does not match the physical description of the police report.

Research shows that key players of the criminal justice system hold implicit biases against Black people, especially dark-skinned black people and people with strong Afrocentric facial features (Eberhardt, 2004, 2006). Eberhardt (2006) found when controlling for the crime, darker Afrocentrically featured Black men are three times more likely than lighter and less Afocrentically featured black men to be penalized with the death penalty (Eberhardt 2004, 2006). These Afrocentric facial features refer to a broader nose, fuller lips, and more stereotypically Black features, features which Italian eugenicist Cesare Lombroso identified as sub-human traits and what was called the “born criminal” (Gibson, 2002). To this day, persons with darker skin and stronger facial features are profiled and criminalized, as is seen in the case of Dedrick Brown.

Furthermore, witness and victim testimonies carry a lot of weight in the courtroom but are shaped outside of the courtroom, behind closed doors. Perceived to be a genuine reflection of the events that unfolded during the crime, jurors, judges, and other courtroom decision-makers often overlook the role that witness prepping and coaching plays in shaping a witness’s testimony (cite?). As in the case of Dedrick Brown, the victim’s testimonies were altered to fit Dedrick into the crime, not only in the instance of the crime against Officer Wislyn Joseph, but in other subsequent crimes that were stacked against Brown. The inconsistent testimonies that took place during the trials that followed the arrests of Dedrick Brown, Willie Barney, and Travaris Santiago, are examples of how the criminal justice system is subjective and works against dark-skinned, Black men.

The following case study translates previous research on colorism and bias in the criminal justice system to a real world situation to show how racism and biases unfold in the criminal justice system. This study follows Dedrick Brown through his arrest, interrogation, and trial in order to understand how an innocent Black twenty year old male ended up with a life sentence. We find that the criminal justice system is subjective and members within it work in biased ways that disproportionately affect dark, Black men. The criminological topics that are interwoven throughout this case include colorism and the criminal justice system, critical race theory and theories of racialized organizations, and witness preparation within the court system.

Literature Review


Colorism is the phenomenon that darker skin toned individuals of any group are discriminated against intra and inter racially for their skin color (Norwood, 2014; Blair, Judd, and Chapleau, 2004; Keith and Herring, 1991; Hunter, 2013). Darker members within a minority group experience more intense discrimination than lighter group members (Hunter, 2007). The hostile media portrayals of black perpetrators and especially dark skin black perpetrators leads to audience priming in which audience members are more likely to believe stereotypical behaviors are associated with persons that appear more stereotypical (Dixon and Maddox, 2005). Researchers have found that darker black people with stereotypical facial features are associated with more negative behaviors by others (Blair et al., 2002; Livingston & Brewer, 2002; Maddox & Gray, 2002)

Consequently, law enforcement officers and prosecutors are more likely to stereotype a dark skin black man than they are a light skin black man, as researchers found that a darker skin black man was three times more likely to receive the death penalty when committing the same crime as a lighter black man (Eberhardt, 2006; Blair et al. 2004). Even when controlling for race and crime, the disparities between skin color and facial features are quite stark. Colorism impacts court proceedings and outcomes in terms of differences in sentencing between White and Black defendants (Johnson and King, 2017). Viglione et al. (2011) found that inmate’s with lighter skin received significantly lower sentences and served less time than inmates with darker skin. This was a novel study, however, much of the literature surrounding biases in the criminal justice system does not take into account skin tone or facial features.

When faced with ambiguity, police and courtroom players resort to judging defendants’ stereotypical facial features (Albonetti 1991).  Following them through every step of the criminal justice system, the combination of minority status and ethnic facial features means that dark persons of color are doubly disadvantaged on the basis of race and skin color, particularly when it comes to likelihood of conviction and incarceration (Keith and Herring 1991; Thompson and Keith, 2001; Hunter, 2007).  People displaying particularly stereotypical facial features are expected to act on the stereotypes associated with that particular group (Blair, Judd, and Chapleau, 2004). In the courtroom this means that judges and members of the criminal justice system draw inferences based on the defendant’s skin color and facial features (Hunter, 2013). In Florida, researchers did not find a difference between Black and White sentence length when controlling for crime. Instead they found that persons of either race will receive a higher sentence when they have Afrocentric facial features, compared to members of the same race who do not have Afrocentric facial features (Blair, Judd, & Chapleau, 2004)

After controlling for crime and other legal factors, Burch (2015) found that Black defendants received sentences that were 4.25% greater than the sentencing length of White defendants. Furthermore, medium and dark-skin black defendants were penalized with sentences that were 48% higher, whereas light skin black defendants received lower sentences that were not statistically significant from Whites. Johnson and King (2017) found the most profound sentencing disparities occurred between light skin white people with the least Afrocentric features and dark skin blacks with Afrocentric facial features. Johnson and King (2017) discovered people of any group with stronger facial features, including Whites, are perceived to be more dangerous and guilty compared with their same race counterparts. A white person with strong, ethnic facial features is perceived to be more dangerous than a white person with softer facial features (Johnson and King, 2017; Kleider et. al, 2012). Therefore, the discrimination associated with colorism includes skin color, along with ethnic facial features and hair texture (Hunter, 2007; Blair et. al, 2002; Kleider et. al, 2012).  Racism, closely linked to colorism, is a key component of the criminal justice system that operates at a super-structural level in terms of ideology, and at a sub-structural level in face-to-face quotidian interaction and emotions (Ray, 2019). Dedrick Brown’s case is a product of the system that has been constructed to maintain racialized and colorist hierarchies within society.

There is a gap in the literature in regard to colorism, criminal justice, and a case study. Thus far, research that examines colorism in the criminal justice system has been largely quantitative, but it is crucial to understand how this phenomenon operates in real world cases. This case study analysis provides a novel way to understand how skin tone bias and colorism work in the criminal justice system by conducting a thorough analysis on the case of Dedrick Brown. Through integrative theories, this study explores how the criminal justice system is a biased and subjective entity that works to incriminate black men, especially those who have stereotypical facial features and have little knowledge and control of their rights and case processes.

Witness Preparation Tactics

The witness preparation process within the criminal justice system of the United States is anomalous to many other criminal justice systems across the world in the sense that many witness preparation procedures are not clearly defined by rules or ethical canons (Gershman 2001; Vasiliev, 2011). This social fact about the witness preparation process in the U.S. is troubling for defendants who are trying to maintain innocence, because case integrity could possibly be tampered with and subsequently the truth could be distorted (Vasiliev, 2011). Vasiliev (2011) extrapolates that the United States legal system is lax in comparison to other countries when creating systems to combat illegal witness tampering and coaching. Specifically, the author argues that there are high risks of abuse and a tendency for inadvertent distortive effects in the U.S. system.

High risks of abuse are due to the fact that witness prepping is under-regulated (Cohen 2015; Green 1991; Vasiliev 2011). To prevent this from happening, the U.S. legal system has imposed possible criminal sanctions aimed at deterring both legal teams from participating in the activity (Flowers 2010). The most important aspect is certainty of sanction, and the U.S. legal system allows for the rules to be bent and broken because there is no enforcement apparatus (Greer, 1971). Inadvertent distortive effects, as the author argues, are unavoidable in the current system because no matter how hard a legal team tries to operate fairly, a witness is prone to psychologically internalizing the story that either legal team extrapolates in the prepping period (Greer 1971). The current U.S. system of tampering and witness preparation needs work, as errors are bound to happen due to the fundamental flaws in the current systems. For Dedrick Brown, this article is a testament to further reevaluation of his conviction. Previous research on witness preparation has shown that pretrial preparation is linked with substantial resistance to breakdown during cross-examination periods of trials (Spanos et. al., 1991). Boccaccini et. al. (2005) found that witness preparation was linked to increases in perceived delivery skills, testimony quality, and reductions in apparent guilt. Wheatcroft & Ellison (2012) found that familiarization of witnesses to cross-examination processes prior to being put into the actual process increased accurate responses and reduced errors.

These articles present similar findings, thus emphasizing the importance of the role of witness preparation, not to mention the implications of its function. Medwed (2012) introduces an analysis of the implications that the witness preparation process has for defendants. One of the principal arguments he produces is his discussion of conviction psychology and its link to witness preparation tactics. The concept of conviction psychology argues that the layering of prosecutor’s individual psychology and the structural processes behind conviction, such as witness preparation, amalgamate to create a system of justice that is based in injustice (Medwed, 2012). This analytical position that Medwed presents is important to consider when discussing the aims of the criminal justice system more generally. Fred C. Zacharias and Shaun Martin note in their article “Coaching Witnesses” (1999), that there are two “ethical red flags” in witness or client coaching. The first of these flags is when an attorney begins suggesting changes to the manner in which the witness presents information for the sole purpose of suggesting false evidence into the testimony (Zacharias & Martin, 1999, p. 1011). This practice is problematic in and of itself.

The second of the supposed red flags is when it becomes apparent that the changes are either inconsistent with earlier testimony or information given by the witness, or the changes are accepted without further thought (Zacharias & Martin, 1999, p. 1011). The authors suggest that if either of the aforementioned “red flags” becomes evident during a case, that the lawyer is likely attempting to persuade a client to offer false information. Given that many of these criminal justice system processes operate to advance racial hierarchies, it is necessary to analyze this work through the lens of the racialized organizations theory (Ray. 2019). Overtly and covertly, the criminal justice system hyper criminalizes Black men (Rios, 2007). Dedrick Brown, a man that does not fit the physical description of the perpetrator, has been a victim of an unjust process cloaked as a just process.


Critical Race Theory

Race is a social construct that is manipulated to exploit certain groups at the benefit of the dominant group (Ladson-Billings, 1998; Delgado & Stefancic 2017). Since the inception of the United States, White people have been the dominant economic group, and the seemingly objective laws, policies, and practices that operate under the guise of neutrality continue to uplift elite Whites (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). Critical Race Theorists argue that the law was never meant to serve all members of society, but rather wealthy, White members at the expense of dark minority groups (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Policies and institutions including the criminal justice system, that vow to operate objectively, subordinate people of color in practice, often in subtle ways that reveal there is a relation between race and power (Petersilia, 1983). A critical discussion of how racism works in the criminal justice system is needed before fundamental changes can be made (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). For example, the War on Drugs was a War on Black people (Bobo and Thomspon, 2006). Disproportionately targeting and incarcerating Black and Brown people, the brutality of the War on Drugs has not applied equally to the Opioid crisis of the twenty first century that has largely affected middle class and wealthy White communities (Netherland and Hansen, 2017). A colorblind approach erases the experiences of people of color, namely Black and brown people, that have been exploited by a faulty criminal justice system (Ladson-Billings, 1998). In a system that was built from the abuse and exploitation of Black and Brown bodies, it is an insult to refer to the criminal justice system as an objective or neutral entity.

As a manifestation of the race and power hierarchy, the criminal justice system serves the interests of elite Whites, at the expense of Blacks, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other non-Whites (Cunneen, 2006; Phillips et. al, 2017; Balko, 2018). To this day, the criminal justice system preys on disadvantaged and marginalized members of society, particularly poor, Black people who lie at the intersection of race, skin color, and class (Norwood, 2015; Monk, 2021; Reiman and Leighton, 2015; Chigwada-Bailey, 2003; Mauer, 2004). 1 in 3 Black men are likely to go to jail at some point in their lifetime (Bonczar 2003). Further, dark-skinned Black men are among the most heavily overrepresented group in criminal populations (Hulsman, 1986). There is no objective system, as any system is as objective and biased as the individuals who created and continue to operate it. Created by wealthy White men who developed the criminal justice system during a time that Black people were considered property, rather than human, the U.S. criminal justice system continues to operate in a parallel manner (Gutzmore, 1983; Rios, 2007). Through the use of the critical race theory (CRT) framework, this study asks, who is perceived, treated, and tried as a criminal? How does a seemingly objective system systematically oppress persons of color? Throughout this article, these questions are answered by a thorough analysis and case study of Dedrick Brown, an innocent, dark-skin Black man who is serving a life sentence. Though the evidence reveals Dedrick Brown’s innocence, the embedded racism in the criminal justice system continues to hold him hostage for a crime he did not commit.

Racialized Organizations

Ray’s (2019) theory of racialized organizations offers a framework to understand how institutions are racialized, and how racism is perpetuated within these institutions. Within this framework, organizations are racialized cognitive schemas that connect organizational rules to social and material resources (Ray, 2019). Four tenets of racialized organizations are thus set forth by the author. First, racialized organizations enhance or diminish the agency of racial groups. This means that organizations are directly implicated in the unequal distribution of resources on account of agency. Second, racialized organizations legitimize the unequal distribution of resources. Through policies and information flowing through the organization, the organization justifies and reifies racial inequality. Third, whiteness is a credential. Whiteness is the norm of racialized organizations and establishes the status quo. Lastly, the decoupling of formal rules from organizational practice is often racialized (Ray, 2019). This decoupling often allows for human subjectivity, especially discrimination, to be infused in the culture of racialized organizations. These four main tenets set the stage for our analysis of the criminal justice system and how Dedrick Brown navigated his experience.

The criminal justice system is a racialized organization that operates in part to advance racial hierarchies. Ray (2019) affirms the validity of this statement by building off of the work of Jung (2015) and Sewell (1992). Jung (2015) offers a structural approach to explain how racism operates in the United States, highlighting the fact that racism is multiple and dynamic. The structural and organizational framework that Ray (2019) provides helps inform how culture and structure interplay within the criminal justice system, particularly when analyzing the intersections of race. Utilizing this framework also helps us to better understand structural motivations behind colorism and witness preparation tactics. In this regard, the criminal justice system hinders the agency of minority stakeholders through inadequate counsel and discriminatory policies that legitimize this malpractice through policy justifications (McCarter 2011). Stakeholders may argue “we’re playing by the rules”, but fail to say that the rules they play by are self-serving and biased in practice (Levinson and Smith 2012). The twin sons of the Miami-Dade state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle have been arrested multiple times for breaking and entering, transporting drugs on a plane, burglary, and trespassing to name a few have never served time in jail or prison (Diaz and Hijek, 2006). This is the same state attorney who stacked cases against Dedrick Brown and continues to keep herself and her family above the law. The criminal justice system treats whiteness as a credential, from judges, to attorneys, to juries, and court workers. Lastly, the organizational practice of the criminal justice system is decoupled from formal rules, meaning rules can be bent in favor of certain outcomes as was the case with Evan and Justin Rundle (Diaz and Hijek, 2006).

As we have contextualized Brown’s case, it becomes necessary to analyze other factors that may have had an effect on Brown’s treatment within the criminal justice system. Two other factors that impacted the outcome of Dedrick Brown’s case were colorism and witness prepping. His stereotypical appearance as a dark Black man coupled with the racism in the criminal justice system, Dedrick was branded as guilty before he even stepped foot in the courtroom. A discussion of these two factors below builds upon our understanding of how colorism and witness preparation interact with and are situated within the criminal justice system as a racialized organization that primarily operates to reify the social order.


Research shows that courtroom decisions are subjective in nature. In order to account for the subjectivity this study implores a qualitative approach that will be used to answer the research question. By using a qualitative approach, we account for the current cultural and political climates, as well as the unique case characteristics, all of which influence people’s outcomes in the criminal justice system (Rosaldo, 1989). Colorism regarding Black people in the context of incarceration is a fairly unexplored area of research; therefore, qualitative methods, specifically interpretive social science and narrative analysis, allow for a more detailed examination of the research question (Charmaz, 2014; Glasser & Strauss, 1967). Due to the complexity of this particular case and shifting testimonies, interpretive social science and narrative analysis are used to further understand discrimination and bias that impacts dark persons of color (Rosaldo, 1989).

Qualitative data analysis was conducted using the guidance of Carl Auerbach and Louise Silberstein’s book, Qualitative Data (Auerback and Silberstein, 2003). Each courtroom testimony was transcribed, dated, and compared with the later testimonies. We compared the transcriptions for inconsistencies to understand how different narratives were used against Dedrick Brown. Specific segments were selected to examine colorism in the courtroom. A second analysis was conducted that compares the photographs of the alleged perpetrators with the police report. Comparing the police report with the photographs of the alleged perpetrators, we find inconsistencies between the physical description in the police report and the physical description of the arrested men.


Inconsistency #1 - The Physical Descriptions

On September 23, 2012 Dedrick Brown was arrested for the armed robbery of Officer Joseph. At the time of his arrest, Dedrick was a 20-year-old, MDC student (Dedrick last attended MDC Fall 2011) riding in the back of his girlfriend's friend's red Pontiac. The red-car perpetrator in question should have been, according to the police report, an approximately 5’8 light skinned man. Yet Dedrick Brown, who has dark, deep chocolate skin and is over 6 feet is arrested. The Miami Dade PD saw a black man in a red Pontiac and decided to capitalize on it.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description automatically generated

As shown, the descriptions of the subjects do not match the corresponding mugshots: Dedrick Brown and Willie Barney both have dark skin and Travares Santiago has a medium skin tone that looks more like a coffee or caramel color. This inaccurate, yet somehow accepted profiling is likely the result of colorism.

In addition, Joseph’s under-oath descriptions changed to better match the appearances of Barney, Brown, and Santiago after they were in custody. Detective Joseph originally stated that the culprits were three light skin men, all between 5'7-5’9, two of which with low haircuts and the third with dreads. He later makes the following statements:

  1. “The male with the gun was a black man, 5’8-5’9, 150-160 pounds, light-skinned, a black and red baseball cap.”

  2. “The second black male was between 5’9 and 5’10, approximately 19 to 20 years old. He was wearing all black clothing. He had short dreads, just above the shoulder length, and approximately 150 pounds.”

  3. “The third male is a black male, 17-18 years old, was light-skinned, also had all black clothing on, with a low-fade type haircut.”




It was only after Dedrick, Willie, and Travares were arrested and sent to trial that Joseph’s statement changed to include a dark-skinned culprit. Regardless, both sets of descriptions in sworn statements still misrepresent the trio arrested.

Inconsistency #2 - Inconsistent Facts

In addition to the incongruous descriptions of the defendants, the victim's, a Miami-Dade detective, statements surrounding the actions of the alleged criminals changed with each trial during which he contradicts himself under oath.  The first inconsistency addresses the robbers’ actions and the second inconsistency addresses the content of the crime that is the stolen jewelry.

The officer gives various accounts of the events that unfolded during the robbery on September 22, 2012 at around 5:15pm. To be specific, Detective Joseph states that Dedrick stayed back during the robbery, until it was time for Dedrick’s trial. In the sworn statement Detective Joseph gives two days after the crime, he states that there were three men, the man with a gun was allegedly Willie Barney, while the other two in the back who had no weapons were Dedrick Brown and Travares Santiago. In the sworn statement, September 24, 2012, and during Willie Barney’s trial, April 24, 2013, Dedrick Brown and Travares Santiago are passive players that stand back, with no gun and no significant role in the robbery. During the first testimony (statement under oath) on September 24, 2012 Officer Joseph states: 

Two of them stood back and the guy with the gun approach me, as he pointed the firearm towards me, and he --as I began to take off my bracelet, he yanked it off. He yanked my chain off, as the gun was aiming at me, and he -- I began to take off my graduation ring, which he felt like I wasn't taking it off too fast. He yanked it off, as well. And I attempted to remove my wedding band, which I successfully did, and tried to give it back to him. He said, ‘I don't want your fucking wedding band,’ took a couple of steps back, and fired one round at me, which struck me in the center mass. (Officer Joseph’s Sworn Statement September 24, 2012)

In this account, Willie Barney is the accused person who is yanking off Officer Joseph’s chain. This statement changes during Willie Barney’s first trial on April 24, 2013 that states the person holding the gun was five feet away from the victim. In this version of the crime, Willie Barney is standing five feet away and only commands Officer Joseph to take off his jewelry. 

I observed the defendant here in the white shirt sitting here with khaki pants, holding a firearm towards me and commands by two additional defendants. He requested for everything, holding the gun described to be a silver and black handgun approximately five feet away from me. I complied. I began to remove my bracelet, which was a Gucci bracelet that I owned for approximately eight years. (Officer Joseph’s Testimony at Willie Barney’s first trial April 24, 2013)

Officer Joseph contradicts his own words during Dedrick’s first trial (September 25, 2013), during which he testifies under oath to say that Dedrick Brown actively helped Willie remove the jewelry: 

Willie Barney, he yanked it off. And at one point which I recall this gentleman here, with the blue shirt left his position and came and aided Willie Barney by removing items off me. And the other gentleman, which was later identified as Santiago, made a statement, he says, ‘You heard what he said, give him all your shit.’ And I remained standing because I had nothing else all I had in my pocket at the moment, which I don't carry a wallet this is all I carry, and inside here was concealed two dollars which was in my pocket. (Officer Joseph’s Testimony at Dedrick Brown’s first trial, September 25, 2013)

In this final account, Dedrick Brown became an active player in removing Officer Joseph’s jewelry. Described as the man with the blue shirt, Officer Joseph says Dedrick Brown left his position to help remove jewelry from Officer Joseph.  To put this bluntly, the statements are incongruous and inconsistent. The scene as it has shifted from Officer Joseph removing his own jewelry to Dedrick Brown removing his jewelry. 

The second case of inconsistent statements addresses the stolen jewelry. Through the various trials and statements under oath, Officer Joseph explains losing a gold bracelet, a gold necklace, and a gold class ring. Two days after the crime occurred (September 24, 2012), Officer Joseph gave his first sworn statement. During this statement, he described the aforementioned items (all gold pieces of jewelry), but he failed to include a silver chain and silver cross being snatched from his neck with the gold chain. After Officer Joseph was questioned about a silver cross being found on the scene, he then admitted that he was wearing a silver chain with a silver cross, and said that it was stolen as well, along with the other items. After that, he never mentioned the silver items again.

Several months later, this statement was changed during the deposition that Officer Joseph gave for Travares Santiago’s trial (February 26, 2013), in which he stated that the robber yanked off his class ring and Gucci necklace. In Dedrick Brown’s trial (September 25, 2013), Officer Joseph says, “all I had with me at the time was jewelry on me which is a bracelet.” He proceeded to describe a bracelet being taken from him, which he did not mention during Santiago’s February 26th trial, but he failed to mention the gold chain and the class ring that he had mentioned in previous trials. The Prosecutor was the one who brought up the gold chain and class ring being taken from Officer Joseph during Dedrick’s trial.

Supporting Evidence - Witness Prepping and Coaching

Legal systems across the world have various systems in place to combat witness tampering before a trial begins. In terms of witness prepping, many legal systems such as those in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand go great lengths to ensure that both prosecutors and defense teams pose minimal influence over a witness’ testimony. Research shows that eye-witness testimonies are often inaccurate due to human psychology, witness prepping, and witness coaching.  Detective Joseph’s inconsistent statements given under oath, raise the suspicion of “hearsay” testimonies that are subject to being exempted under rule 801(d)(1)(A) or 801(d)(1)(B). Witness prepping is a very secretive process that only includes the witness and prosecutor, without any record of the event. For this reason, it is difficult to know what was discussed, and if a faulty testimony is given, only the prosecutor and witness will know about it. Furthermore, this practice makes it difficult to distinguish between acceptable coaching techniques and improper techniques that lead to false testimonies (Gershman 2002). What is most concerning about witness prepping is that the prosecutor is less concerned with justice but focused on self-serving purposes (Gershman 2002). 

There is a case that parallels ours which shows what witness prepping looks like throughout the various stages of the criminal justice process. A red flag with witness prepping is when the witness testimony changes drastically from the initial police report, as in the case of Kyles v. Whitley, a capital murder case that included a witness testimony from Isaac Smallwood. In the trial, Isaac Smallwood gave a thoroughly detailed description of the killing. Smallwood said that he saw Kyles fight with the victim, pull out a black .32 caliber gun from his right pocket, shoot the victim, and leave the crime scene in the victim’s LTD (Gershman 2002). This thorough, detailed account does not match the statement Smallwood gave to the police the night of the killing. Actually, Smallwood gave a drastically different account in his statement to the police when he says he did not see the actual killing, nor did Smallwood see the assailant outside the victim’s vehicle. Smallwood caught a glimpse of the assailant for the first time as he was driving towards Smallwood in a Thunderbird (Gershman 2002). These different statements led to a reversed conviction.

Given the situation of Dedrick Brown, it is possible that the victim Detective Joseph was likely being coached in a way that encouraged him to give false information during testimonies. Zacharias and Martin (1999) recognize that client’s range in their abilities to express their thoughts, and thus, require varying levels of assistance. In this light, some witness coaching may be necessary for the efficiency of a trial, but there comes a time when the assistance no longer serves the same purpose. While there are many inconsistencies in the case of Dedrick Brown, the testimonies given by Detective Wislyn Joseph demonstrate unethical witness coaching. Zacharias and Martin (1999) state that witness coaching cannot be fully addressed within the codes of litigation, like many other tactics. Issues of witness coaching that arise in one case are inadvertently different than issues that arise in other cases, and thus, lawyers cannot fully rely on established codes. Attorneys must distinguish between coaching with the intention of assistance and coaching with the intention of persuasion in order to maintain an ethically honest testimony, and the line oftentimes becomes easy to cross, as it was in the testimonies of Dedrick Brown’s case.

Discussion & Conclusion

Throughout this case study, we have aimed to provide a comprehensive understanding of how colorism, witness preparation tactics, and racism occur on varying structural and cultural levels to perpetuate racial hierarchies within the criminal justice system. In doing so, we have illuminated the individual experience of Dedrick Brown, to translate our theoretical understanding of how the American criminal justice system operates into a real world example. Many factors outside of race and colorism impact criminal case outcomes, but we argue that race and colorism should be centered within the academic discussion of why racial disparities exist in criminal case outcomes.

The criminal justice system is not a race neutral organization, rather it is a racialized organization that serves to implicitly and explicitly advance racial hierarchies in the United States. This case study is limited in several ways and we argue that future research on this topic should aim to build upon these limitations. First, our case study is limited in the scope of perspective as we have not obtained all of the existing key information from salient actors who participated in Dedrick Brown’s interactions throughout the criminal justice system, including from Brown himself. To this limitation, key information that may have illuminated other aspects of our integrated approach may have been missed. Our study is also limited in generalizability, given the existence of unique contextual features highlighted throughout the study. Another common critique of the case study format is that case studies are hard to replicate. Although this is true for many case studies, this study is supported through extant research that spans several decades and schools of thought. Future case studies of people who have become entangled within the criminal justice system should further verify the existence of colorism in the criminal justice system. The effects of colorism are cumulative through the stages of the criminal justice system and result in inequitable outcomes on the basis of skin tone and physical appearance.

The United States criminal justice system serves and protects White bodies at the disposal of Black and Brown bodies. Through this case, we show how a supposed objective system is fundamentally flawed to target and punish young Black men, in particular dark Black men. Therefore, we propose that cases where the perpetrator's color does not match the police report be reopened. Moreover, we propose policy initiatives that account for color and skin tone bias at all stages in the criminal justice system: profiling, arrests, trials, and corrections. For example, the “stop and frisk” policy should be re-examined through a color conscious lens to understand how this superficially objective policy disproportionately targets dark skinned and Black youth. We call on the analysis and abolishment of color coded practices and policies that continue to create what we call mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow.


  1. Qualitative criminology

  2. Policy Implications

  3. Case Study

We propose that more studies use qualitative methods to understand colorism in the criminal justice system as this is an understudied but strong impact area that has lifelong consequences for darker people of color. Furthermore, the disassociation between the police report and physical characteristics of the arrested men reveal that dark persons of color are targeted by law enforcement officers. We call for an examination and potential abolishment of colorist policies such as “stop and frisk” and the wrongful arrests of persons who do not match the descriptions on the police report. And last, we ask that researchers use case studies and qualitative analysis to examine injustice in current cases. Through case studies, we as researchers are able to use our knowledge to change the outcome of current and future cases.


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