State of Oregon v. Samuel Adam Lawson
, the Oregon Supreme Court established new procedures to determine the admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence today. The case revised previous reliability tests and will now require that courts review eyewitness testimony in a manner consistent with the vast research in the area of eyewitness identification and memory. The court’s ruling reflected many of the legal arguments set forth by the Innocence Network in its friend-of-the-court brief.
Lawson, who will now receive a new trial, was convicted of murder based largely on an eyewitness’ account from the victim’s wife two years after the incident. The identification was aided by the lead investigator in the case who showed her a picture of Lawson and then escorted her to a pre-trial hearing so she could get a second look.
The Oregon Court of Appeals found Hilde’s identification to be valid based on a 33-year-old case, State v. Classen. However, the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed in an 80-page opinion by Justice Paul J. De Muniz citing serious concerns regarding the reliability of the identification. The
“In light of current scientific knowledge regarding the effects of suggestion and confirming feedback,” De Muniz concludes that questions about the reliability of the ID evidence admitted at trial are impossible to ignore and remands the case to trial court for a new trial.
Among Classen’s many problems, De Muniz notes, is that the law’s “burden-of-proof structure improperly requires defendants who have filed pretrial motions to exclude eyewitness identification evidence to first establish than an identification procedure was suggestive, even though the state — as the administrator of that procedure — controls the bulk of the evidence in that regard.”
The ruling comes soon after a similar landmark decision from New Jersey’s Supreme Court required major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries. The Oregon decision goes further than the New Jersey court in protecting against wrongful convictions based on misidentification in several important respects. The new Oregon test shifts the burden to the state to establish that the evidence is admissible. If the state satisfies its initial burden, the court charges that judges may still need to impose remedies, including suppressing the evidence in some circumstances, to prevent injustice if the defendant establishes that he or she would be unfairly prejudiced by the evidence.