On November 29, 2012, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a landmark
opinion on the admissibility of eyewitness identification, reversing
the aggravated murder conviction of Samuel Lawson. With the opinion,
the Oregon Supreme Court became one of the first states to make use of
decades of scientific research establishing the frequently unreliable
nature of eyewitness identification. The opinion gives guidance to
Courts and attorneys alike, to exclude evidence and caution jurors
about unreliable eyewitness identifications.
False eyewitness identifications have long been the cause of innocent
people being convicted and executed for crimes they did not commit.
The Oregon Supreme Court cited two recent studies establishing that
approximately 75% of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence
involved eyewitness misidentification. The Oregon Supreme Court put
into law what scientists and good attorneys have known for years —
that a witness’s confidence in their identification has nothing to do
with the accuracy of their identification, and that an eyewitness
identification must be handled with the same extreme care as other
forensic evidence such as DNA.
The case of Samuel Lawson was a powerful demonstration of the
unreliability of eyewitness identification. There, the sole
eyewitness twice failed to pick Lawson out of a photo lineup,
insisting that she hadn’t seen the killers’ faces. The lone
eyewitness didn’t identify Lawson in a photo lineup for a full two
years after the shootings — and did so only after she’d been taken by
a detective to Lawson’s pretrial hearing. Only then did the
eyewitness identify Lawson, further claiming that she would never
forget his (Lawson’s) face for as long as she lived.
The Oregon Supreme Court deserves great credit for bringing the
science regarding eyewitness identification into courtrooms, and
educating jurors, lawyers, and judges about the extreme caution needed
to handle and evaluate eyewitness identification.