The Tooth Comes Out in California Murder

     (CN) — A California man’s murder conviction was overturned Thursday because a dental expert recanted his testimony about a bite mark from the man’s unusual teeth.
     After three mistrials, William Richards was convicted in 1997 of the murder of his wife, Pamela, four years earlier. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
     Police had arrived to find Pamela lying face down with her head against a cinder block. One of her eyes had been gouged out and one ear was partially ripped off. Richards told police that their dogs had failed to protect Pamela from the killer.
     The dogs partially buried Pamela’s head during the night, so her body was in a different position when police worked on the crime scene the next morning.
     Richards told police that he knew Pamela was having an affair, and he said he informed her boyfriend over the phone that she was dead.
     The coroner determined that Pamela was strangled nearly to death before her head was smashed with the cinder block and a stepping stone.
     Dr. Norman Sperber, a dentist with more than 40 years of experience, testified at Richards’ trial in 1997. He had also testified at the murder trials of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
     Sperber had made a casting of Richards’ lower jaw, which had only one canine tooth instead of the usual two. Sperber traced a transparency over Richards’ teeth and declared it a “pretty good alignment” with a photo of a lesion on Pamela’s hand, according to court records.
     Richards sought a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his conviction was based on false evidence. He cited Sperber’s 2007 declaration that he “cannot now say with certainty that the injury on the victim’s hand is a human bite mark injury.”
     The trial court vacated the conviction, but the California appeals and supreme courts ruled that it should be reinstated.
     According to the appeals court, the recantation did not qualify as “false evidence” because it did not involve new technology or an advance in the witness’ area of expertise.
     However, the California legislature amended the penal law in 2014 to allow a recantation to qualify as “false evidence.”
     Richards tried again to overturn his conviction, and the California Supreme Court granted him habeas relief Thursday in an opinion written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
     “Because [the amended law] states false evidence is established when an expert’s trial testimony has ‘been repudiated by the expert who originally provided the opinion,’ petitioner has shown through Dr. Sperber’s subsequent testimony during the 2009 proceedings on habeas corpus that Dr. Sperber’s testimony was false,” she wrote.
     Cantil-Sakauye added that the conviction should be overturned in the absence of the dental evidence.
     “The case against petitioner was entirely based on circumstantial evidence, and much of that evidence was heavily contested,” she wrote, noting that Pamela had fought her attacker and Richards had shown no signs of being in a struggle.
     Justices Goodwin Liu and Carol Corrigan wrote concurring opinions.
     “The bite mark evidence falsely established ‘a direct and visceral link’ between Richards and the victim, and the remaining evidence was too close for us to have confidence in the verdict,” Liu stated.
     Corrigan challenged Liu’s observation that the first two trials ended with hung juries, and that Richards was convicted after the dental evidence came into play.
     “To conclude that the case is weak merely because a jury, or even two, did not return a verdict is often an exercise in speculation,” he wrote.

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