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Ninth Circuit revives suit over wrongful murder conviction

A federal judge had ruled William Richards failed to show an investigator's motive for planting evidence implicating him in his wife's brutal murder.

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a lawsuit filed by a man wrongfully imprisoned for nearly 23 years should advance, overturning a federal judge's summary judgment against the man.

William Richards was tried four times for the brutal murder of his wife Pamela. The first and third trials ended in a hung jury. A judge declared a mistrial in the second during jury selection. In 1997, a jury convicted Richards and the judge later sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

In 2007, the California Innocence Project took up Richards' cause, filing a habeas corpus petition on his behalf. Granted a hearing, Richards' lawyers presented new DNA evidence showing that another person was at the scene of the crime.

They also argued that blue fibers from Richards' work shirt, which had been found under Pamela's fingernails, had been deliberately planted by investigator Daniel Gregonis. To show this, they presented autopsy photos of Pamela's fingernails, which did not contain any of the blue fibers. They were only present in a video taken later.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville ruled in favor of Richards, writing "the entire prosecution case has been undermined and [Richards] has established his burden of proof to show that the evidence before me presents or points unerringly to innocence.”

The San Bernardino County district attorney appealed the ruling and won. Richards appealed to the California Supreme Court, striking out there in a 4-3 ruling. But after the California Legislature passed a new law redefining "false evidence" to include "opinions of experts that have either been repudiated... or that have been undermined by later scientific research or technological advances," Richards filed another appeal and in 2016 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

In 2017, Richards sued San Bernardino County, its DA, the sheriff's department and Gregonis, claiming they introduced false evidence during his fourth trial.

“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,” Richard said in his federal lawsuit.

In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero found for the defendants in summary judgment, finding, among other things, that Richards had been "unable to point to facts that show that Mr. Gregonis had a motive to deliberately manipulate the evidence,” that here were “far more plausible explanations for the late discovery of the blue fibers" and that Richards had not proven that the "purported planting of the blue fibers resulted in his conviction.”

On Friday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel disagreed. "The district court incorrectly held that Richards was required to show that Gregonis had a motive to manipulate the evidence," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Tallman, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the panel, "Motive is merely one type of circumstantial evidence that may be used to support a claim of deliberate fabrication. And here, Richards need not rely on motive evidence because he supports his claim with direct evidence of fabrication. The district court therefore erred in concluding Richards was required to show that 'Gregonis had a motive to deliberately manipulate the evidence.'”

Tallman wrote that whether or not the blue fibers had been deliberately planted was for a jury to decide, not a judge. The other two judges on the panel, U.S. Circuit Kenneth Lee, a Donald Trump appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the First Circuit, concurred.

“This appeal was primarily about the summary judgment standard," said Richards' attorney Caitlin Weisberg. "In our federal civil system, factual issues are decided by juries. It was plaintiff's position that the district judge didn’t follow the rules for summary judgment, and came to its own conclusion about factual issues.”

A spokesperson for San Bernardino County did not return a phone call requesting comment.

The panel remanded the case for trial on Richards' fabrication claims against Gregonis and municipal liability claims against the county.

"Bill Richards lost his wife in a horrific crime," said Weisberg. "He was the one who found her at their home, and he was wrongfully convicted of killing her. Although he has been exonerated by the state of California, this lawsuit is about ensuring that the persons responsible for his wrongful conviction and twenty-three years in prison are held accountable.” 

In 2021, the state awarded Richards $1.2 million for his "8,328 days of erroneous incarceration."

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