Lawson, Samuel

On August 21, 2003, 52-year-old Noris Hilde and his 45-year-old wife, Sherl, went camping for the weekend in the Umpqua National Forest, in Douglas County, Oregon. They pulled their trailer to a campsite where Noris had set up a tent a weekend earlier to claim the campsite.

When they arrived, they discovered a yellow truck in their parking space. The truck’s owner, 28-year-old Samuel Lawson, was in their tent. When Noris told Lawson it was their tent, Lawson apologized, saying he thought the site had been abandoned. He loaded his truck and moved to a vacant campsite nearby. After about 40 minutes, Lawson left the campground.

At about 10 p.m. that night, Sherl was shot in the chest with a large caliber hunting rifle as she stood at the window of the trailer. Noris called 911 on his cell phone, but he was shot while he was speaking with the 911 operator and died. The 911 dispatcher called back and spoke to Sherl, who said she and her husband had been shot and that “they”—referring to the shooter or shooters—wanted the Hildes’ truck.

Emergency personnel found Sherl in the trailer, critically wounded, but alive. Noris was dead.

An ambulance attendant who accompanied Sherl on a helicopter to a hospital would later testify that Sherl was rambling and hysterical. She referred to the perpetrator as “they” and variously said the gunman was a man who had been at the campsite earlier in the day, that he was the pilot of the helicopter, that she did not who the gunman was and that she had not seen “their” faces.

Two days later, a detective attempted to interview Sherl, but she was heavily medicated and sedated, and could not speak due to a breathing tube. Her hands were restrained to keep her from removing the tube, so she could only respond by nodding or shaking her head. The detective first showed Sherl a black-and-white photo lineup that included a picture of Lawson because he had come to police attention when he volunteered to the police that he had encountered the couple at their campsite on the morning of the day they were shot. When the detective asked whether she saw in the lineup the person who shot her, Sherl shook her head no. Using leading questions, the detective asked Sherl whether she had seen the gunman earlier in the day, whether he had been in their tent, and whether he drove a yellow truck. Sherl nodded affirmatively.

Lawson was arrested on August 25, 2003 and charged with aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder and first-degree robbery.

On September 3, police visited Sherl again. She said that after her husband was shot, the gunman came into the trailer and covered her face with a pillow. Sherl said she couldn’t see the man because it was dark and the pillow covered her face. She said she didn’t think she could identify anyone.

On September 22, police visited Sherl again and in this interview she said for the first time that despite the pillow, she did get a brief look at the gunman and that he was wearing a dark shirt and a baseball cap. She was shown a photographic lineup that included Lawson’s photograph, but was unable to identify anyone as the gunman.

The police returned to Sherl on October 1 and a detective first went over the answers she gave at the first interview, but Sherl could not recall the interview. But now, Sherl said she believed the gunman was Lawson, although she “could not swear” to it because she only saw Lawson’s face in profile. She refused a police request to view a profile lineup. A detective then told Sherl that Lawson was the man she had identified and that he was in custody.

Prior to trial, Sherl, while at a rehabilitation facility, saw a newspaper photograph of Lawson that identified him as being charged with the shooting.

Lawson went on trial in November 2005 in Douglas County Circuit Court. The prosecution’s primary evidence was the testimony of Sherl. No murder weapon was ever found, although crime laboratory analysts said the couple were shot with a high-powered rifle—the type of weapon that Lawson was known to have owned at one time.

Sherl identified Lawson as the gunman and said that after they were shot, she heard someone approach the trailer. She said she looked away from the door because she was afraid that if the gunman saw her looking at him when he entered, he would kill her. She told the jury that the gunman put a pillow over her face, demanded the keys to the couple’s truck and then walked away. When the gunman returned, Sherl said she turned her head under the pillow and recognized him as the man who had been in their tent when they arrived that morning.

Asked if she had any doubt that Lawson was the man who shot her and her husband, Sherl said, “Absolutely not. I’ll never forget his face as long as I live.” She also said that she “always knew it was him.”

Lawson’s lawyers sought to bar the identification, arguing that it had been tainted by suggestive police procedures. The judge denied the motion, finding that Sherl had had significant opportunity to see Lawson on the morning of the crime and that he was wearing a dark shirt and black cap with white lettering.

On December 12, 2005, the jury convicted Lawson of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, and first-degree robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, Lawson’s attorneys contended that Sherl’s identification was tainted by “unduly suggestive” police procedures during their interviews.

The defense claimed that the prosecution had failed to disclose to the defense prior to trial evidence of suggestive identification techniques despite its legal obligations to do so. The suggestive techniques included that Sherl had been shown a second and a third photographic lineup, each of which included Lawson; that a detective took Sherl to court to view Lawson in person prior to trial; and that prior to trial Sherl was given a single photograph of Lawson in the same clothes he wore the morning of the shooting.

In December 2010, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the police had engaged in suggestive behavior, but that Sherl’s identification of Lawson had a basis in her perception of the shooter independent of the suggestive influence of these procedures. The court upheld Lawson’s conviction.

In November 2012, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court noted that the two-step process judges used since 1979 in Oregon to determine if an identification is reliable was flawed. In the first step, a judge decides whether there were suggestive procedures. If there is a finding of suggestiveness, the judge decides whether the identification was made independently of the improper tactics.

This method was replaced with a new set of rules that require Oregon courts to consider all of the factors that may affect the reliability an identification and instructs courts, if necessary, to employ remedies such as limiting the scope of a witness’s testimony or permitting expert testimony to explain scientific research on eyewitness memory and identification. The new procedure shifts the burden to the state to establish that the evidence is admissible. The Oregon Supreme Court held that if the state satisfies its initial burden, judges may still impose remedies—including suppressing the evidence in some circumstances—if a defendant establishes that the evidence would be unfairly prejudicial.

The court also noted that the prosecution had withheld critical information from the defense relating to some of the more suggestive procedures. “That kind of information is essential to an accurate determination of the reliability of an eyewitness's identification and is the kind of potentially exculpatory evidence that the state is constitutionally required to disclose to a defendant,” the court said.

On March 6, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Lawson was released.

– Maurice Possley (National Registry of Exonerations)

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