The Oregon Supreme Court in a unanimous decision last week upended how eyewitness identification is to be used in criminal trials. The landmark 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 country’s 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.
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.”