Court throws out murder conviction and changes rules on eyewitnesses

Steven DuBois / The Associated Press
Published Nov 30, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

PORTLAND — The Oregon Supreme Court revised its standards for allowing eyewitness testimony Thursday while ordering a new trial for a man whose murder conviction was largely based on the account of a woman who was critically wounded in the attack and couldn’t identify him in initial police interviews.

In a unanimous opinion, the court said there were “serious questions” about the reliability of the identification evidence presented at the trial of Samuel Lawson, who was convicted of killing Noris Hilde and critically injuring Hilde’s wife, Sherl, at an Umpqua National Forest campground in 2003.

Sherl Hilde could not positively identify Lawson in the weeks after the shooting, saying she had seen him for only a few seconds at most. Two years later, at trial, she was certain it was him. The court says the woman’s conflicting statements indicate her memory was influenced by police suggestion.

The opinion written by Justice Paul De Muniz said the standards for the admissibility of eyewitness testimony, established in 1979, needed to be revised in light of developments in law and scientific research.

In the most obvious change, the initial burden is now on the state to show the evidence is reliable. The traditional test puts the burden on the defendant to show the identification was the product of unduly suggestive procedures.

Another shift is that under the traditional test, courts could make only one decision: suppress or admit the evidence. Now courts will have a range of remedies to address unreliability, such as limiting the witness’s testimony and permitting expert testimony to explain the scientific research on memory and identification.

“We’re very concerned about eyewitness misidentification because it’s the leading cause of wrongful convictions, and we think that this test is going to provide much greater protection to innocent defendants,” said Karen Newirth, eyewitness identification litigation fellow at the Innocence Project.

The Hildes arrived at their campsite on Aug. 21, 2003, and discovered that Lawson’s yellow pickup was in their parking spot and that he’d been staying in their tent. Lawson apologized, gathered his gear and moved to a vacant campsite.

That evening, Sherl Hilde was shot in the chest with a hunting rifle. Her husband called 911 but was fatally shot during the conversation.

The operator called back, and Sherl Hilde said she and her husband had been shot but she didn’t know who fired. Following surgery, Sherl Hilde failed at least twice to identify Lawson in photographs supplied by police.

The court said it was dark during the attack, and stress, fear and physical injury tend to impair memory. Moreover, the suspect covered Sherl Hilde’s face with a pillow and was wearing a hat, which obscured key identifying features.

“It was not until after she had seen a newspaper article with a picture of defendant, and was later brought by police to a preliminary hearing to view the defendant in person, that she was able to identify him,” De Muniz wrote. He noted the circumstances in which Sherl Hilde viewed Lawson were “highly suggestive of his guilt.”

At the 2005 trial, when asked if she had any doubt about the identification, Sherl Hilde said: “Absolutely not. I’ll never forget his face as long as I live.”

Lawson’s attorney, Daniel Casey, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Bronson James, a Portland defense attorney who filed an amicus brief in the case, said the decision was “huge” because courts need to keep up with the current research. James said he has a case in which the victim identified the accused not from a police lineup, but by going to a website and finding a mug shot.

The state Supreme Court decision recognizes that the science of memory, perception and identification is “monumentally different than it was 35 years ago,” James said.

“We can now put some real guidance on what does it mean it be suggestive?” he said.

“The court spends 80-something pages trying really hard to track what is close to the best science.”