View from the trenches: the struggle to free William Richards.

AuthorStiglitz, Jan
PositionWrongful Convictions: Understanding and Addressing Criminal Injustice

    The mounting number of convictions reversed as a result of DNA testing and television shows like "CSI" have probably given the general public some misperceptions about forensic evidence and the criminal justice system. First, DNA is not always a magic bullet that will conclusively demonstrate innocence. Second, not all forensic evidence presented at trial is scientifically valid. To the contrary, junk science has been a major cause of wrongful convictions. Finally, prosecutors do not willingly and graciously partner with innocence projects when we come forward with information suggesting that an innocent person has been convicted of a crime. Instead, most prosecutors reflexively fight efforts to overturn wrongful convictions even when faced with evidence of innocence that most fair-minded people would find compelling. (1)

    Those facts are also illustrated by the story of William Richards's efforts to overturn his wrongful conviction. In 2001, William Richards contacted the newly formed California Innocence Project (CIP) for help. In 1997, Richards had been convicted of killing his wife, Pamela Richards. As will be discussed, the evidence against him was, primarily, circumstantial and far from compelling. What follows is the story of our (2) continuing efforts to seek his release.


    Sometime in the afternoon or evening of August 10, 1993, Pamela Richards was strangled and severely beaten with a large paving stone and a cinder block. (3) The murder scene was a remote location in Hesperia, California. Bill and Pamela lived there in a trailer. Electricity came from a gas powered generator.

    Richards left work on the night of August 10, 1993, at 11:03 p.m. Based on "trial runs" from his workplace, the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department believed that Bill arrived home at 11:47. Richards called 911 at 11:58. Thus, under the prosecution's time line, Richards had approximately eleven minutes in which to have committed the crime. And it was undisputed that during that small window of time, Richards received a phone call from a man named Gene Price, who called and expressed concern because he had been unable to reach Pamela by phone earlier that evening.

    It took a while for the police to arrive and even then, they did not secure or process the crime scene. It was too dark. The investigation did not really commence until daylight and by then, dogs which roamed the area had wandered around the crime scene and had partially covered up Pamela's face with dirt. In addition, no one from the Sheriffs Department or the Medical Examiner's Office ever attempted to take Pamela's core liver temperature to determine a time of death. Nor did they investigate other clues that might have established a clearer time line. For example, they did not feel the generator to see if it had been used that night.

    The first two trials resulted in hung juries. The prosecution introduced some evidence to suggest that Bill and Pamela were having marital and financial problems. The prosecution introduced some testimony which suggested that Richards had lied about whether he had found Pamela's body face up or face down (a fact which had no forensic significance). The prosecution introduced blood spatter evidence which suggested that blood stains found on Richards's clothing were consistent with high velocity blood spatter and not merely blood which had been transferred when, as Richards claimed, he'd cradled Pamela's dead body. Finally, the prosecution argued that a small tuft of blue fibers allegedly found under Pamela's fingernail was consistent with material from the shirt that Richards had worn.

    The defense countered with an expert who testified that the limited amount of blood found on Richards's clothing was totally inconsistent with the prosecution's theory. The crime scene indicated a violent bloody struggle had taken place and Richards had almost no blood on his shirt and no blood spatter on his pants.

    The defense also relied on the fact that Richards had no marks on any part of his body, yet Pamela's broken fingernails suggested that her attacker would have some scratches or other marks from the struggle. Finally, the defense pointed to the absence of any marks or tears on Richards's shirt. Other than a hole made by the Sheriffs Department's criminalist (Daniel Gregonis) to obtain a sample for fiber comparison, the shirt was intact.


    During the third trial, both sides introduced testimony from forensic odontologists regarding a crescent shaped injury (or "lesion") which had been found on Pamela's right hand. Relying on a single photograph provided by the prosecution, Dr. Norman Sperber, the prosecution's expert, testified that the injury was consistent with a human bite mark. He also testified that whoever had left that bite mark had a rather distinctive abnormality relative to their lower right canine tooth which would only occur in "one or two or less" out of one hundred people. The defense expert, Dr. Gregory Golden, also based his testimony on the one photograph. Like Sperber, Golden believed that injury was a human bite mark and testified that he could not rule Richards out as the biter. However, he testified that he could also not rule out others, whose (teeth) exemplars he had in his office.

    This time, after deliberating for three days, the jury came back with a guilty verdict.


    As indicated, in 2001, Richards contacted the California Innocence Project. We quickly determined that there was a hair found under Pamela's fingernail which had never been tested. We also believed that the rough surfaces of the paving stone and the cinder block might contain testable genetic material left by the person who wielded these weapons. Finally, we identified individuals who might be linked to the crime through DNA testing of the hair and the paving stone.

    One, Gene Price, was the person who claimed to have tried to call Pamela on the night of the murder. Our investigation indicated that he and Pamela once had an intimate relationship. However, Pamela's sister (now deceased) told us that the Pamela's relationship with Price had ended and that Pamela was now afraid of Price.

    The second was an individual named Rafael Resendez-Ramirez ("Resendez"). At the time, Resendez was on death row in Texas. Known as the "Railway Killer," Resendez was believed to have been responsible for scores of murders throughout the United States and Mexico. (4) Of particular interest to us was the fact that Resendez traveled by train and committed most of his crimes in remote areas near railroad lines. (Richards's property was both remote and near to a railway line.) In addition, Resendez's crimes were particularly bloody and brutal. (5)

    Then-recent legislation in California allowed us to get court-ordered DNA testing in cases where the identity of the perpetrator was at issue, where the evidence sought to be tested would be material to issue of identity, and where test results would have raised a probability of a more favorable result if the testing had been available at the time of trial. (6)

    In order to expedite the testing, and because we believed that Richards's case was exactly the kind of case the legislature had in mind when it enacted Penal Code section 1405, Justin and I picked up the phone and called Michael Risley, the Deputy District Attorney (DDA) who had prosecuted the case. Risley did not share our view. First, he told us that our client was guilty. When we asked Risley why he could be so sure in light of the absence of any direct evidence and the fact that two prior juries had doubt regarding Richards's culpability, Risley said, in words or substance: "Trust me. I know he's guilty." Risley then made it clear that while he was happy to "cooperate" with us, his office would not stipulate to testing and would vigorously oppose a 1405 motion.

    So in December of 2005, we filed our 1405 motion, and in February of 2006, the District Attorney's office filed its opposition. On the issue of whether favorable DNA evidence would have made a difference in the result, we, of course, cited the fact that two prior juries had been unable to reach a guilty verdict. (7) The District Attorney's response to that claim (authored by DDA Grover Merritt) ranks as one of the oddest I've encountered in over thirty-four years of practice. For example, he cited the movie 12 Angry Men for the proposition that juror disagreement does not necessarily mean disagreement over the evidence. (8) Justin and I were both amused and confused: Was Merritt trying to argue that the jurors in 12 Angry Men were wrong and that the movie should have ended in a guilty verdict? Or was he saying that the criminal justice system should not trust jury verdicts--an odd position for a prosecutor to maintain?

    Regardless, in July of 2003, the judge who heard the motion granted it and we were, naively, confident that Richards's release was just going to be a matter of time, maybe six months to a year.

    However, our DNA consultant had suggested to us that we have all testing done by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) in order to avoid any claims that the lab which tested the material was untrustworthy or biased. The District Attorney's office agreed to that suggestion and the critical items (including the paving stone and the hair found under Pamela's fingernail) were sent off for testing in mid-2003.

    Unfortunately, the DOJ did not give our request much priority and, literally, years went by without any testing being performed. (9) Despite repeated calls and letters, we did not get all of the DNA test results back until February, 2007.

    As we hoped and expected, DNA was found on the paving stone in the exact location where the Criminalist Gregonis had suggested the killer's DNA might be found and that DNA did not match either Bill or Pamela. Similarly, mitochondrial DNA testing...

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