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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Freed After 23 Years, Californian Wants Answers

Cleared of murder by DNA evidence after spending 23 years in prison for the murder of his wife, a California man brought a federal complaint against San Bernardino County, its district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices and a host of officials.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) — Cleared of murder by DNA evidence after spending 23 years in prison for the murder of his wife, a California man brought a federal complaint against San Bernardino County, its district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices and a host of officials.

It took four trials before William J. Richards, of rural San Bernardino County, was convicted for the Aug. 10, 1993 murder of his wife.

The first trial resulted in a hung jury, the second was a mistrial and the third was another hung jury. Richards on Thursday also sued District Attorney Michael Ramos, Deputy District Attorney Michael Risley, and eight other officials involved in his arrest and prosecution. He claims the county fabricated evidence to convict him on its fourth attempt.

“Desperate for a conviction, in the fourth trial, defendants introduced — for the first time — false and fabricated bite mark evidence, which directly resulted in the wrongful conviction,” the complaint states.

It was a brutal murder. Pamela Richards was severely beaten outside her home with fist-sized rocks, strangled, and then a cinder block was dropped on her head, crushing her skull. Blood was found splattered 15 feet away from her body.

William Richards, a mechanical engineer, left work at 11:03 p.m. and drove home to a remote area where he and his wife lived in an RV. There was no power and no lights and he did not notice her immediately, but within 10 minutes he found his wife dead on the porch. He cradled her body in horror and then got a call from Eugene Price, her former lover. After a brief discussion, Price told him to call 911, which he did at 11:58 p.m.

The timeline, according to the complaint, is critical. It was undisputed that Richards clocked out at 11:03 p.m. and drove home. An investigator’s re-creation of the drive showed he could not have got home before 11:47 p.m. Price called at 11:55 p.m., giving Richards eight minutes or less to commit the murder.

A deputy arrived at 12:32 a.m., but did not investigate other than checking the body, which was naked from the waist down and covered by a sleeping bag. Homicide detectives arrived at 3:15 a.m., then left quickly, allowing Richards’ to dog enter the crime scene and partially bury the victim. At 6 a.m., detectives returned and began their job.

According to the complaint, this was because detectives had decided from the start that Richards was guilty. They failed to follow up and collect key evidence, such as whether the RV’s battery was dead or had been removed. No fingerprints were sought inside or outside the home, the shed or even on the fist-sized rocks. They did not swab a bite mark found on the victim for the biter’s saliva and a possible DNA link to the killer. A coroner’s medical team never conducted a complete autopsy to determine key questions such as time of death. The entire crime scene was soon destroyed when the RV and all other structures and items were removed from the property.

Richards’ conviction hinged on evidence that was disputed and even recanted, according to the complaint. Dr. Norman Sperber, chief forensic dentist for San Diego and Imperial Counties, testified at the fourth trial that the bite marks found on the victim showed an abnormality distinctive to Richards that only one or two in 100 people would have. Blue fibers found under Pamela Richards’ fingernails were matched to Richards’ shirt by criminalist Daniel Gregonis, who testified that blood found on Richards’ shoes and the stains on his pants were consistent with blood spatter evidence at the scene.

On Dec. 5, 2007, the California Innocence Project filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Richards’ behalf and the court granted him an evidentiary hearing.

Richards presented new evidence at the hearing. The cinder block was tested for DNA and a mixture of the victim’s DNA and the DNA of a man other than Richards was found on it. Mitochondrial testing of a hair found in the victim’s fingernails determined that it did not belong to Richards, but to an unknown third party. Photos taken of the victim’s hands were digitally enhanced and it was shown that no blue fibers were in her fingernails before Gregonis discovered them. Dean Gialamas, senior criminalist with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, testified on the blood spatter evidence and disagreed with the conclusion reached by Gregonis. Sperber then essentially reversed his position, testifying that the bite mark was not consistent with Williams’ dental impressions.

At the conclusion of the hearing, according to the complaint, Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville concluded that the evidence created a fundamental doubt as to the accuracy and reliability of the evidence presented at trial.

“Taking the evidence ... the blue fiber under the finger and the DNA and bite-mark evidence, the court finds the entire prosecution case has been undermined and that petitioner has established his burden of proof to show that the evidence before me presents or points unerringly to innocence.”

But the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office appealed and won. Richards filed a petition to the California Supreme Court, but lost there in 2012 by a 4-3 vote. In 2015, he petitioned again and finally won his release in a 7-0 vote.

In the complaint, he accuses Gregonis of planting the blue fibers. Others are accused of lying on the stand.

Williams’ attorney Jan Stiglitz commented: “I expect the county to continue to take the position that Bill killed his wife. This is despite DNA evidence found on the murder weapon and under the victim's fingernail that could not have come from Bill. In fact, the county was all set to retry Bill after the supreme court reversal, and only backed off after we filed a malicious prosecution motion.”

Stiglitz, of San Diego, said Williams has cancer and suffers from other medical problems due to his incarceration.

“Bill has some support from friends and the many good people who worked to free him. However, he cannot find meaningful, full-time employment and his financial situation is not good,” Stiglitz said. ‘We will be seeking substantial damages, but there is no amount of money that will adequately compensate him for the lost years.”

The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office did not return calls and emails.

Categories / Appeals, Courts, Criminal, Government

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