Oregon Supreme Court Changes Game in Eyewitness Identification

The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously ruled earlier this month to change the way that eyewitness identification can be used in criminal trials. The ruling shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors. The prosecution must now show that identification evidence is sufficiently reliable before it is admissible at trial. This represents a wide departure from the previous legal standard which allowed courts to assume eyewitness identifications were reliable unless the defendant could prove otherwise.

Mistaken eyewitness identification is one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction and there have been countless scientific studies in recent years proving the fallibility of memory and witness accounts.

The Oregon Supreme Court also ruled that even if the state can prove an identification is reliable, the court may still bar the evidence if the defendant provides enough evidence of “suggestive police procedures.” The court said, “Because of the alterations to memory that suggestiveness can cause, it is incumbent on courts and law enforcement personnel to treat eyewitness memory just as carefully as they would other forms of trace evidence, like DNA, bloodstains, or fingerprints, the evidentiary value of which can be impaired or destroyed by contamination.”

In addition to issuing the ruling on eyewitness identifications in general, the court also found that a new trial was warranted in one of the two cases involving identification procedures. The defendant had been found guilty of shooting a husband and wife at a campground. The husband died but the wife survived and two years later identified the defendant after seeing him at a pretrial hearing. The court found that this identification was highly suggestive and the wife was under great stress at the time of the crime making her memory unreliable.

Read the full article in The New York Times here.

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