The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Murder Conviction Upheld Despite New DNA, Witness Recantation

Ten years after his testimony helped to convict William Richards of the murder of his wife, Pamela Richards, Dr. Norman D. Sperber regrets his testimony that Richard's distinctive dental deformity only exists in one or two percent of the population. Without a scientific study, he told the court that he shouldn't have used percentages. Perhaps he is correct. However, he did say at trial that his statements were not based on studies. The harm, if any, was probably minimal.

However, Dr. Sperber now says that with his additional experience, he isn't even sure that the marks were from a human bite injury.

Does this amount to false evidence? According to the court, no. Expert testimony comes in the form of an opinion. Opinions are subjective and different experts can come to different conclusions. A single expert’s opinion might vary over time.

In addition to Dr. Sperber’s change of heart, Mr. Richards’ counsel presented testimony from two new forensic dentistry experts. A new technique in forensic dentistry now allows photos, taken at an angle, to be corrected for the angle and to be blown up to life size, giving a realistic look at what the bite marks would look like if the photo had been taken properly. The new photo was analyzed by additional experts, who were also unsure if the marks were from a human bite.

Still, new experts disagreeing with old experts does not amount to false evidence. It amounts to a difference in opinion.

Since it was not false evidence, the change in opinion and new experts’ testimony amounts to new evidence, as does the new DNA evidence. In order to overturn a conviction on the basis of new evidence, that evidence must point unerringly to innocence.

The DNA evidence consisted of a hair found under one of Pamela’s nails and DNA on the paving stone. Though it certainly sounds suspicious, the court felt that it proved nothing. Due to the size of the victim’s nails, the hair could have been lodged under her nail for some time. She worked as a waitress, so she came across many people on a daily basis. The other DNA, on the paving stone, could have been contamination from the courtroom or have been present before it was stained with Pamela’s blood.

Mr. Richards’ counsel presented new forensic evidence casting doubt on the teeth marks and presented DNA evidence from other people, found on the victim and on a possible murder weapon. On the other hand, the prosecution still has the motive, the defendant’s suspicious behavior, blood spatter patterns, and other forensic evidence.

The case sounds like a close call, and in the final tally, it was. Four justices voted to uphold his conviction because he had not presented enough evidence to overturn it. Three voted to set him free. Barring another appeal, William Richards will remain in prison for life, unless paroled.

This is part two of a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

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