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Man back in court after murder conviction tossed

Feb 16, 2013


By The Associated Press

ROSEBURG — Samuel Lawson, a man whose murder conviction was overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court last fall, returned to a Douglas County courtroom this week for the first time since he was awarded a new trial.

The clean-shaven Lawson wore a jail-issued hunter orange shirt and pants for the brief hearing on a defense motion to bar Judge William Garrison from presiding over the new trial. Garrison denied a defense motion seven years ago to declare a mistrial.

“He's been in custody for 9½ years for something he didn't do,” defense attorney Mark Sabitt told the News-Review after the hearing. "He's doing better than I would be."

In a unanimous opinion last fall, Oregon's highest court found serious questions about the reliability of the eyewitness testimony presented at Lawson's 2005 trial. He 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 identify Lawson in the weeks after the shooting, saying she saw the assailant for a few seconds at most. Two years later, at trial, she was certain it was him.

The state Supreme Court said the woman's conflicting statements indicated her memory was influenced by police suggestion.

The opinion 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. 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.

Prosecutor Rick Wesenberg said this week he will work under the new rules to have Sherl Hilde's testimony used at the next trial.

“We intend to relitigate that thoroughly,” Wesenberg said.

On the day of the shootings, the Hildes encountered Lawson, then 27, in a tent the couple had pitched. That evening, Noris Hilde was shot by a rifle at the campsite through the walls of his RV.

Lawson was serving a life sentence before his conviction was overturned.

Lawson's father, Carl Lawson, told The News-Review that relatives met with Lawson on Tuesday and that his son was “holding up.”

“I hope he gets a square deal out of this,” Carl Lawson said.

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Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com

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