Back to: Obituaries
March 6, 2014
Follow Obituaries

Murder charges against Lawson dismissed

Samuel Adam Lawson, who spent more than a decade in custody, was freed Thursday from the Douglas County Jail, no longer a convicted murderer or even a suspect.

Lawson, 38, was found guilty and sentenced to life in 2005 for shooting to death Noris Hilde, 52, of Green on Aug. 21, 2003, at an Umpqua National Forest campground.

Since then, the case against Lawson has fallen apart.

First, the Oregon Supreme Court in 2012 overturned the conviction, ruling that Douglas County sheriff’s investigators coaxed the victim’s wife into identifying Lawson as the shooter.

More recently, prosecutors learned they couldn’t use at Lawson’s new trial what scant forensic evidence they had, primarily a bullet and footprint.

Deprived of physical evidence and the only eyewitness account of the shooting, prosecutors determined they didn’t have enough evidence to convict Lawson.

On Thursday, an Oregon Department of Justice lawyer took paperwork dismissing the charges to Douglas County Circuit Judge George Ambrosini.

Ambrosini signed the papers, and Lawson, who didn’t appear in court Thursday, was released from jail at 4:36 p.m. He had been locked up, either in the county jail or state prison, since July 23, 2003.

Lawson’s defense attorney, Peter Fahy, said today he picked Lawson up from the jail. “(Lawson’s) reaction was one of stunned relief,” he said.

Fahy said that when Lawson stepped outside tears welled up in his eyes as he took in his surroundings.

“Sam can put this behind him and begin on the process of restarting his life,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but he’s a strong man. We are all immensely gratified.

“He has maintained an excellent, positive attitude. I won’t go as far as saying he has no anger for losing 10 years of his life, but Sam doesn’t have a mean or vindictive bone in his body,” Fahy said.

The Department of Justice assumed control of the prosection last month at the request of the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, which still had two deputy district attorneys assigned to the case to assist.

District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said today he understood the justice department’s move to dismiss the case.

“This is not a decision they took lightly,” he said. “My belief is they felt like they were in a corner. That this was the only logical thing to do.

“The whole thing is a bitter pill to swallow,” he said.

Wesenberg said he and other prosecutors met with the victim’s widow, Sherl Hilde, to explain their decision.

“She’s an incredible woman. She’s very strong. She understood,” Wesenberg said.

Noris and Sherl Hilde arrived in a trailer at Briggs Camp, about 60 miles east of Roseburg near Lemolo Lake, on Aug. 21, 2003, and found a man in a tent they had already pitched.

According to court records, the man apologized, saying he thought the tent was abandoned. He gathered his gear and moved to a vacant campsite nearby.

That evening, at about 10 p.m., Sherl Hilde was shot in the chest with a hunting rifle as she stood near the window of the trailer. Noris Hilde called 911 and was shot while speaking with a dispatcher.

Noris Hilde died a short time later, while Sherl Hilde was flown to a Bend hospital.

At Lawson’s trial two years later, Sherl Hilde identified Lawson as the man in their tent and their attacker.

The Court of Appeals upheld Lawson’s conviction, but it was reversed by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision that rewrote Oregon law.

Trial courts traditionally gave great weight to eyewitness accounts. The Supreme Court, however, cited reams of scientific research suggesting eyewitness accounts can be unreliable and easily influenced by investigators.

The Supreme Court noted that Sherl Hilde initially told sheriff’s investigators that she couldn’t see the shooter’s face. Twice, she was unable to pick out Lawson from a photo lineup.

Her identification of Lawson as the shooter came after she saw a newspaper article with his picture identifying him as the suspect and after a sheriff’s detective brought her to court to see Lawson in person.

A sheriff’s spokesman today declined to comment on the case.

The Supreme Court also noted that Sherl Hilde was on the floor in a dark trailer, critically wounded and fearing for her and her husband’s life when she saw the shooter’s profile for a few seconds.

The scope of the decision raised questions about whether prosecutors could successfully retry Lawson.

Still, the district attorney’s office took on the job, brought Lawson back to the county jail more than year ago and indicated it would seek the death penalty.

The prosecution suffered another blow recently when questions arose about how the Oregon State crime lab handled forensic evidence, including a bullet removed from the victim’s body and a footprint imprinted in blood on a wooden stepladder to the Hildes’ trailer.

Wesenberg said prosecutors were not going to be able to use the evidence against Lawson again.

“This was a shock to us. We learned of this a few weeks ago,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of forensic evidence, but what we had was lost.”

Because of the questions about how evidence for the first trial was handled by the crime lab, it was expected that Wesenberg, who was the lead prosecutor in 2005, would be called as a witness at the new trial. To avoid a conflict, the district attorney’s office turned over the leading role to the justice department.

A Department of Justice spokesman said state prosecutors involved in the case were not available for comment today.

Fahy said the state made the right decision in dismissing the charges. “The more evidence that came to light in this case, the more apparent it became (Lawson) is innocent,” he said. “We express our deepest sympathies to Sherl Hilde and her family for their loss.”

Lawson was scheduled to stand trial May 14, and lawyers were engaging in a series of pretrial motions before Thursday’s dismissal.

Lawson was found guilty in late 2005 after a four-month trial. At a hearing to determine his sentence, prosecutors portrayed Lawson as a cold-blooded killer.

The defense presented witnesses who testified that Lawson’s four-year service in the Air Force was exemplary.

Other witnesses recalled Lawson as a kind and gentle boy while he was in foster care in a Winston home.

Wesenberg said today that prosecutors could refile charges against Lawson if new evidence surfaces.

“If new information becomes available, we would absolutely revisit it at that point,” he said.

• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 at jprokop@nrtoday.com. City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or djenkins@nrtoday.com.

This version of the story was posted Thursday:

Murder charges were dismissed today against Samuel Adam Lawson, who was found guilty more than eight years ago by a Douglas County jury of shooting to death a Green resident at a campground.

Lawson was sentenced to life in prison for aggravated murder, but his conviction was unanimously overturned in 2012 by the Oregon Supreme Court. Justices ruled the victim’s wife was coaxed by Douglas County sheriff’s investigators into identifying Lawson as the shooter.

Unable to present the only eyewitness account of the shooting, the Oregon Department of Justice concluded there was insufficient evidence to retry Lawson, according to a statement issued late this afternoon by the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors also were hampered by being unable to introduce previously admitted forensic evidence, according to the statement.

The Department of Justice today moved to dismiss the charges, and the motion was granted by the Douglas County Circuit Court.

Officials with the Department of Justice or district attorney’s office were not immediately available for comment.

Noris Hilde, 52, and his wife, Sherl Hilde, arrived in a trailer at Briggs Camp, about 60 miles east of Roseburg near Lemolo Lake, on Aug. 21, 2003, and found a man in a tent they had already pitched.

According to court records, the man apologized, saying he thought the tent was abandoned. He gathered his gear and moved to a vacant campsite nearby.
That evening, at about 10 p.m., Sherl Hilde was shot in the chest with a hunting rifle as she stood near the window of the trailer. Noris Hilde called 911 and was shot while speaking with a dispatcher.

Noris Hilde died a short time later, while Sherl Hilde was flown to a Bend hospital.

At Lawson’s trial two years later, Sherl Hilde identified Lawson as the man in their tent and their attacker.

The Court of Appeals upheld Lawson’s conviction, but it was reversed in a landmark decision that rewrote Oregon law.

The high court noted that trial courts traditionally give great weight to eyewitness accounts. The Supreme Court, however, cited reams of scientific research suggesting eyewitness accounts can be unreliable and easily influenced by investigators.

The Supreme Court noted that Sherl Hilde initially told sheriff’s investigators that she couldn’t see the shooter’s face. Twice, she was unable to pick out Lawson from a photo lineup.

Her identification of Lawson as the shooter came after she saw a newspaper article with his picture identifying him as the suspect and after a sheriff’s detective brought her to court to see Lawson in person.

The Supreme Court also noted that Sherl Hilde was on the floor in a dark trailer, critically wounded and fearing for her and her husband’s life when she saw the shooter’s profile for a few seconds.

The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office originally took on the job of retrying Lawson for murder, but last month requested that the Department of Justice assume the prosecution, with the assistance of the district attorney’s office.

According to the district attorney’s office, it and the sheriff’s office learned today about the state’s decision not to continue with the prosecution.

Lawson was scheduled to stand trial May 14, and lawyers were engaging in a series of pre-trial motions. District Attorney Rick Wesenberg indicated he would seek the death penalty if Lawson was again convicted of aggravated murder. The jury in 2005 spared Lawson’s life and opted to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also was convicted of attempted aggravated murder.

Lawson was found guilty after a four-month trial. At a hearing to determine his sentence, prosecutors portrayed Lawson as a cold-blooded killer.

The defense presented witnesses who testified that Lawson’s four-year service in the Air Force was exemplary. Other witnesses recalled Lawson as a kind and gentle boy while he was in foster care in a Winston home.


Explore Related Articles

Trending in: Obituaries

Trending Sitewide

The News-Review Updated Mar 7, 2014 02:16PM Published Mar 6, 2014 06:28PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.