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An experiment was performed to explain the appearance of cracks along mesa structures during the processing of GaN device layers grown on sapphire substrates. Micro-Raman spectroscopy was used to measure the position-dependent stress in the GaN layer. We show evidence that the stress at the interface with the substrate may be larger along the mesa structures than that of the as-grown layer, and that this increase in stress can be enough to induce cracks along mesa structures during processing. We report on the formation of cracks that propagate guided by the nonuniformity of the stress induced by the formation of mesa structures in the GaN layer, independent of crystal direction. The understanding of cracking mechanisms has implications in GaN-based device structures that require heteroepitaxial growth of layers with different lattice size and thermal expansion coefficients. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.