When someone is accused of criminal conduct and is forced to go to trial, it is critical both for that individual's case and for the integrity of the criminal justice system that evidence is processed in fair and reliable ways. Failure to adhere to the basic principles of criminal law can lead to disproportionate sentencing and wrongful convictions.
In an effort to ensure that eyewitness identifications are only entered into evidence when they are proper and reliable, the Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled that the burden of proof must be placed in the hands of prosecutors to demonstrate that the evidence is sound and properly admissible. This ruling represents a vast departure from the current burden of proof standard, as most jurisdictions require the defense to prove that the evidence is inadmissible.
According to the New York Times, the nation's leading cause of wrongful conviction is misidentification by either victims or witnesses. The Oregon Supreme Court is attempting to reverse this trend by ensuring that the prosecution presents sound evidence rather than forcing the defense to argue against an identification that could unduly prejudice the jury before said identification has been deemed sound.
In its decision, the court explained that "because of the alterations to memory that suggestiveness can cause, 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."
This ruling is truly a landmark decision in terms of criminal evidentiary standards and procedure. It will benefit both individual defendants and the system as a whole if other jurisdictions choose to adopt it.
Source: New York Times, "A Check on Bad Eyewitness Identifications," Dec. 5, 2012