Third Circuit task force issues major report on eyewitness identifications

The Third Circuit Task Force on Eyewitness Identifications, formed in 2016 to study and address the problem of mistaken witness IDs leading to wrongful convictions, has issued its report. The full report is published in the Temple Law Review and is available online at this link. It’s a tremendously impressive effort and I expect it to have a real impact, here in the Third Circuit and nationally.

The task force was co-chaired by Judge McKee and EDPA Judge Mitchell Goldberg. Task force members included Chief Judge Smith, Judges Shwartz and Restrepo; district judges from across the circuit; and a broad range of academics, defenders, and prosecutors and law enforcement—20 in all.

The report draws on a deep body of scientific research on different factors leading to mistaken identifications and procedures to reduce them, and to reduce wrongful convictions resulting from them. It presents concrete recommendations regarding law enforcement best practices on matters such as how to interview eyewitness and elicit identifications.

Two committee members (a then-federal prosecutor and an FBI agent) disagreed with many of the committee’s conclusions and recommendations, and the report included their positions throughout and a separate statement. Two other members (Judge McKee and a law professor) proposed changes to the circuit’s jury instructions.

The report’s conclusion states:

The Third Circuit Task Force on Eyewitness Identification was the first such project undertaken by a federal court on the issue of eyewitness identification, but the national effort to deter the use of suggestive practices that result in wrongful convictions of innocent people has long preceded the Task Force’s work. A substantial body of scientific research has identified factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, and the corresponding best practices have robust, nationwide support. The Task Force is proud to contribute to this vital endeavor.

The task force report is engaging, thoughtful, and important, and I hope it gets the serious attention it deserves.