A new Oregon Supreme Court decision upended how eyewitness identification is to be used in criminal trials, says the New York Times in an editorial. The ruling shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors to show that such identification is sufficiently reliable to be admissible as evidence at trial. Misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. By altering the legal standard, Oregon has set an example that other states and the federal courts would be wise to follow, says the newspaper.
Previously, trial courts had to assume eyewitness identifications were admissible unless defendants could show that they were unreliable; trial courts also relied heavily on the eyewitnesses' reports of their own reliability even though that was at issue. In ruling that such evidence should be subject to stricter standards, the court took into account three decades of scientific research showing that memory and perception can be highly unreliable. “Because of the alterations to memory that suggestiveness can cause,” the court said, “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 one case at issue in Oregon, police took a woman to a pretrial hearing to observe the man they said had been arrested in the shootings and showed her his picture in a notebook. Under the court's new approach, that kind of highly suggestive police procedure is likely to make the identification inadmissible, the Times says.