Man serving life term loses bid to overturn murder conviction
SAN FRANCISCO — A San Bernardino County man serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife lost a lengthy battle Monday to overturn his conviction, even though forensic evidence used against him was later discredited.
In a 4-3 decision, the California Supreme Court said that William Richards, 63, had failed to prove his innocence.
Monday’s ruling established a high hurdle for overturning convictions that stem from inaccurate scientific evidence. The majority said forensic evidence, even if later recanted, may be deemed false only in narrow circumstances.
“The falsity of the trial evidence must be proved,” Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the majority. “Otherwise, every criminal case becomes a never-ending battle of experts over subjective assertions that can never be conclusively determined one way or the other.”
After two trials ended in hung juries, a third panel heard new evidence about a crescent-shaped mark on the hand of Richards’ wife, Pamela, that implicated him in her death. A forensic dentist testifying for the prosecution identified the lesion from a photograph as a bite mark that matched Richards’ teeth. The expert said only about 2% of the population would have matched the mark.
The third jury convicted Richards in 1997, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Ten years later, the expert reviewed the photograph after it had been enhanced with new technology to provide a clearer picture. He ruled out Richards as the source. Other forensic dentists also said Richards’ teeth did not match the mark.
After a hearing in 2009, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville overturned Richards’ conviction, concluding that new evidence pointed “unerringly” to his innocence. An appeals court later reinstated the conviction.
The question before the California Supreme Court was whether the original bite mark testimony constituted false evidence, which is strong grounds for a retrial.
The majority said Richards had failed to prove the original bite mark testimony was false because “experts still could not definitively rule out petitioner’s teeth as a possible source of the mark” during the 2009 hearing.
Justice Goodwin Liu disagreed.
In a dissent joined by Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Ming W. Chin, Liu noted that three of four dental experts who testified at the 2009 hearing ruled out Richards as the source of the mark, and a fourth refused to give an opinion.
All four experts agreed that the original photograph used at trial was too poor to support scientific conclusions, even though the prosecution witness asserted at the time that he could infer the source of the lesion, Liu said.
“This is not a case in which a habeas corpus evidentiary hearing has devolved into a fresh battle of the experts,” Liu wrote. “Instead, all of the experts provided testimony refuting critical facts underlying … trial testimony.”
In addition to presenting new bite mark evidence, lawyers for Richards discovered traces of DNA on a stone that was believed to have been used to bash in his wife’s head. Although the male DNA did not match Richards’, the genetic traces could have resulted from contamination during handling in the courtroom, the court majority said.
San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos praised the court’s decision. “It is good day overall for justice and justice for victims,” Ramos said.
But Jan Stiglitz, Richards’ lawyer and co-director of the California Innocence Project, called the decision “fundamentally unjust.”
“If everybody acknowledges the expert got it wrong, and everybody acknowledges the expert’s testimony was critical, why isn’t the conviction being reversed?” said Stiglitz, a professor at San Diego-based California Western School of Law.
He said prosecutors were willing to discuss a plea deal for Richards before the 2009 hearing, but Richards refused. After Stiglitz told Richards about Monday’s ruling, the attorney said Richards told him: “What bothers me the most is that I am going to go to my grave being labeled as the guy who killed my wife.”
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