The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Calif. Supreme Court: DNA, Evidence Cast Doubt on Murder Conviction; Is it Enough?

Pamela Richards was murdered on August 10, 1993. When the police arrived, approximately 32 minutes after the victim’s husband called 911, the property was pitch black. Despite the darkness, William Richards was able to give the deputy a tour of the entire crime scene, including the separate locations of the victim’s pants and underwear, and pointing out that a bloodstained paving stone was thrown down the rough, downward sloping terrain of the side of the property. During the tour, Mr. Richards would fall to his knees and start crying, then resume the tour.

To the sheriff’s deputy, it all felt a little too rehearsed.

According to the court, further investigation would reveal that both spouses were having extramarital relations and that Pamela may have been planning on leaving her husband for another man.

Between Mr. Richards’ odd demeanor, blood spatter on his clothes that was more consistent with a murder than with finding a body, other forensic evidence, and the obvious motive, the police had their man. The jurors weren’t so sure. There were multiple deadlocked juries and mistrials before the final trial that convicted Mr. Richards.

The difference at the last trial seemed to be the testimony of a forensic dentist, Dr. Norman D. Sperber. He testified that a deformity in the defendant’s teeth would only be present in one or two percent of the population, though according to the court, he also testified that the estimate was anecdotal and not based on statistics. Dr. Sperber also matched the deformed teeth to an imprint on the victim’s hand, suggesting that Mr. Richards bit his wife in the struggle.

He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in 1997.

In 2007, after all of his appeals were exhausted, he sought habeas corpus relief, arguing that his prior conviction was based on false evidence and that new evidence unerringly established his innocence. Dr. Sperber, ten years later, is no longer as sure has he was about the source of the impressions. Also, DNA was found under Pamela’s fingernail and on the aforementioned paving stone that did not match Mr. Richards. The Superior Court granted his petition for relief, meaning he would be set free. However, the appeals court reversed, setting up another appeal to the California Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court had to decide two things. First, did the dentist’s weakening opinion amount to false evidence? Second, did a new analysis of the teeth evidence and the DNA amount to enough evidence to warrant a reversal? If the conviction was based on false evidence, relief is warranted and Mr. Richards should go free. If not, Mr. Richards would have to show enough evidence to prove his innocence - a much higher burden.

This is part one of a two-part series. We’ll have the rest of the Richards case later this week.

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