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Understanding Oregon’s test for eyewitness reliability

Oregon has one of the most stringent processes for determining whether or not an eyewitness testimony is admissible in court.

In 2012, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that addresses the use of eyewitness testimony during trial. According to court documents, the state's high court consolidated two separate cases in which the defendants had been convicted based largely on witness' accounts. In its final ruling, the court decided that the system for proving eyewitness credibility was insufficient, and the judges issued a new procedure.

Research has long shown that eyewitness testimony can be fallible. With the 2012 ruling, Oregon established one of the most stringent tests for eyewitness validity in the nation.

The old method

The Federalist Society notes that Oregon eschewed the formerly used Classen test, which allowed for too many rulings to be based heavily on eyewitness testimony. As the Innocence Project points out, the leading factor in wrongful convictions that have been turned over by DNA is eyewitness misidentification. This is due to issues such as the following:

  • Witnesses may have overt or subconscious biases when identifying a subject.
  • The presence of a weapon can cause a witness to lose focus on the situation and not pay strict attention to detail.
  • The anxiety and stress of a situation can lead to memory issues.
  • It is possible for law enforcement and prosecutors to ask leading questions that would sway a witness' response.

The Classen method essentially assumed that any testimony from eyewitnesses was credible and the burden of proof to discredit the witness was on the defendant. That has now changed.

The new way

Thanks to the 2012 ruling, prosecutors in Oregon must now demonstrate that an eyewitness' account will be credible. The Washington Times points out that prosecutors will have to ask questions regarding how much time passed between the time the event occurred and the time when law enforcement interviewed the witness. Further, prosecutors will have to assess whether or not the witness is the same race as the suspect, as people of different races have been shown to have more trouble correctly identifying a person.

The Federalist Society goes on to say that once the state has demonstrated that the witness was able to observe the incident and that his or her testimony is rational, the defendant may still dispute the evidence. A defendant could claim that the threat of confusion, unfair prejudice or a propensity to mislead the jury outweighs the value of the evidence the testimony would provide.

Based on those arguments, Oregon courts can then determine whether or not to permit the testimony. Anyone with questions regarding how this process works should consult with a criminal defense attorney.