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William Richards – An usual case…

Man serving life term loses bid to overturn murder conviction

The California Supreme Court says that William Richards, 63, had failed to prove his innocence in the 1993 killing of his wife, even though forensic evidence used against him was later discredited.

“But when you’ve got the expert who testified for the prosecution, who comes back and revisits the evidence and says, ‘You know, the state of the science now tells me that my conclusions then were either incorrect or exaggerated or misleading,’ that is incredibly powerful in any given case,” [Talking about bitemark evidence].

William Richards was convicted of brutally murdering his wife and is serving 25 years to life. The evidence against him was mostly circumstantial and two different juries were unable to reach a verdict. A third trial was aborted because the judge recused himself. But at the fourth trial, the San Bernardino County prosecutor introduced for the first time testimony about a lesion on the victim’s hand. Forensic dentist Norman Sperber analyzed an autopsy photograph during the trial, pointing out marks that appeared to be spaces between the teeth of someone who had bitten the victim. Sperber told the jury that the apparent bite mark matched William Richards’ unusual dental structure — one so unique he estimated just one or two out of 100 people might have it. Richards was convicted in 1997. Ten years later, another forensic dentist corrected a distortion in the picture using photo-editing software.

“If I had known that technology would help me be more accurate, I definitely wouldn’t have testified as I did,” Sperber says.

He now believes Richards could not have made the bite mark and questions if it’s even human. So given this change of view, and the fact that the BM evidence appeared to be crucial in securing the conviction, is Richards a free man?  Nope. Read the court ruling here (a good read on the case, the arguments and the forensics as well as the dissenting view) and visit the California Innocence Projects page here.You can read the Amicus Curiae for the case here – which demonstrates that not only was Sperber’s evidence discounted by the expert himself, but that it was crucial to the conviction of Richards.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 22.33.23Listen to an NPR piece on the case, and the issue of forensic experts who want to change their mind…

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This case is of particular forensic dental interest as the odontologist changed their mind about the evidence and interpretation. This was following several years, and a lot of advances in the science and surely should be commended – the concept of a dogmatic witness is not a good one – however, the California Court was not supportive.
A jury convicted Richards after a photo of what was thought to be a bite mark on the victim's hand was submitted as evidence at trial.
A jury convicted Richards after a photo of what was thought to be a bite mark on the victim’s hand was submitted as evidence at trial.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 22.01.58
Once the distortion has been corrected, the forensic dentist changed their opinion on the likely cause of the injury

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.”

Update on case March 2015 – California high Court Agrees to Reconsider the 1993 case:

A San Bernardino man convicted of murder in part because of discredited forensic evidence will have his case reviewed again by the California Supreme Court. Meeting in closed session, the justices decided unanimously Wednesday to hear a challenge by William Richards, who was found guilty of murdering his wife, Pamela, in 1991. The state’s high court examined Richards’ case in 2012 and refused to overturn his conviction. In response to that 4-3 decision, the Legislature passed a bill that said discredited forensic testimony amounts to false evidence and can be grounds for a new trial. The California Innocence Project asked the court to reconsider Richards’ case in light of the new law. Richards, 65, was tried three times. Juries deadlocked in the first two trials. In the third, a dental expert testified that a lesion on the Pamela’s body was a bite mark that matched Richard’s unusual tooth pattern. The jury convicted. The expert later recanted, saying he had been mistaken.

Two of the justices who voted against Richards in 2012 are no longer on the court. In a brief order, the court asked the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to respond to Richards’ challenge.

 

About Odont1

Odont1
Odont1 is a seasoned forensic dentist, researcher and educator with an interest in progressing the science of the discipline while retaining those elements that are evidence based and useful to the judicial system at any level.

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