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Oregon Supreme Court Reaffirms ‘Independent Evidence Rule’ for Accomplice Testimony

by Mark Wilson

The Oregon Supreme Court vacated a man’s convictions on multiple crimes that were based almost entirely on the testimony of his accomplices, who had entered into cooperation agreements with the State. The Court affirmed the longstanding rule that accomplice testimony must be corroborated by “other evidence” and ruled that the other evidence in the case was insufficient to corroborate the accomplices’ testimony.

On April 14, 2014, Jemaell Diamond Riley, Paul Ropp, and Steven Young scaled a fence and broke into two Comcast vans, stealing various items. Two days later, they broke into a uniform store and stole ballistic vests and police uniforms. 

As they attempted to get away, police gave chase, and they crashed their vehicle. Ropp fled on foot with an assault rifle, but Young and Riley were pulled from the vehicle and arrested. 

Ropp shot a police officer and killed a police dog before he was arrested. After their arrests, Ropp and Young entered into cooperation agreements with the prosecution. Both accomplices implicated Riley in a larger crime spree, including an attempted kidnapping and robbery of a jewelry store manager and an attempted robbery of a T-Mobile store. 

Riley was charged with 17 crimes. Four charges related to the jewelry store robbery and kidnapping and two counts related to the T-Mobile robbery attempt. The case proceeded to trial, and Ropp and Young testified for the prosecution.

After the State rested, Riley moved for judgment of acquittal on the jewelry store and T­Mobile charges, arguing that the only evidence connecting him with those crimes was the uncorroborated testimony of Ropp and Young. The trial court denied the motion, and Riley was convicted of all charges. 

The Oregon Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the State’s argument that “the independent evidence rule is not established as Oregon precedent,” and alternatively, if it is, the Court should abandon that rule. 

Citing cases dating back to 1895, the Court “readily conclude(d) that the independent evidence rule is binding precedent.” It then rejected the State’s argument that those early cases were wrongly decided. That is, the State failed to meet “its burden to demonstrate that the rule should not have been adopted by this court.”

Noting that “the state has conceded that the corroboration requirement of ORS 136.440(1) is not satisfied under an independent evidence rule,” the Court found that “without reference to the accomplice testimony, the available evidence does not ‘connect the defendant with the commission of either the attempted jewelry store robbery and kidnapping or the attempted T-Mobile robbery.” As such, the trial court improperly denied Riley’s motion for judgment of acquittal on those counts. Accordingly, the Court reversed the convictions and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings. See: State v. Riley, 443 P.3d 610 (Ore. 2019). 

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Related legal case

State v. Riley



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