Just weeks after a unanimous California Supreme Court threw out Bill Richards’s murder conviction, prosecutors in San Bernardino County have indicated that they will seek a fifth trial for the 66-year-old. “It’s absolutely stupid,” said Richards’s longtime defender Jan Stiglitz, a founder of the California Innocence Project, which has represented Richards since 2001.
Richards was convicted in 1997 of killing his wife, Pamela, four years earlier. The case has long been controversial and considered a wrongful conviction based on the discredited junk science of bite-mark analysis. Indeed, prosecutors tried three times to convict Richards — including two full trials that ended in hung juries and a third that ended in a mistrial — before employing at his fourth trial the testimony of a renowned forensic dentist who claimed that an alleged bite mark found on Pamela’s hand was a definitive match to Richards’ supposedly unique lower dental pattern.
That expert, Dr. Norman “Skip” Sperber, recanted his testimony during a 2008 evidentiary hearing, admitting that he should never have testified as he did because there was no science to back up his conclusion. The recantation ultimately led California’s highest court to overturn Richards’s conviction on May 26. “Dr. Sperber’s trial testimony that the lesion on Pamela’s hand was consistent with the assertedly unusual dentition of [Richards’s] lower teeth constituted ‘false evidence,’” the seven-member court agreed.
The San Bernardino DA’s office has insisted that the bite-mark evidence was not crucial to the state’s case. But the Supreme Court justices appeared unpersuaded, explaining in detail that without the bite mark, the DA’s case was built solely on highly contestable circumstantial evidence.
The court’s ruling not only vacated Richards’s conviction, but also precludes prosecutors from using the unreliable bite-mark evidence if they retry the case. Given the paltry evidence left to tie Richards to the grisly murder, his lawyers and supporters had hoped that DA Michael Ramos would simply dismiss the case. But it appears Ramos — who is running for California attorney general in 2018, highlighting his record of “holding criminals accountable to the fullest extent of the law” — is not inclined to do so.
Stiglitz told The Intercept that Chief Deputy DA Clark Hansen has advised him that the state will try Richards again. Hansen did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. Oddly, Christopher Lee, who serves as the DA’s public affairs officer, has insisted in emails that no such decision has been made. When pressed about why Richards’s defense team would think otherwise, Lee’s last email was abrupt: “I have attempted to answer your question on two occasions, and the answer remains the same. Have a nice day.” Lee has not responded to an additional email.
Assuming the information provided to Richards’s lawyers is accurate, the question becomes: Why? Richards has already been incarcerated for more than two decades, since he was first charged with the August 10, 1993, strangulation and bludgeoning death of his wife of 22 years. And just this spring, roughly two months before the Supreme Court vacated his conviction, Richards was recommended for parole, despite the fact that he maintains he is innocent — a circumstance that can make obtaining an early release difficult at best.
At the 2008 hearing where Sperber recanted his testimony, Richards’s defense team also proffered new DNA evidence, collected from a paving stone and a cinder block used to crush Pamela’s skull, that revealed the profile of an unknown male. Foreign DNA was also obtained from a hair removed from under one of her fingernails.
Also undermined at the hearing was the state’s assertion at trial that a tuft of blue fiber removed from a crack in one of Pamela’s torn fingernails was consistent with a common blue work shirt that Richards was wearing the night of the murder. At the hearing, an expert testified that a photo of Pamela’s hand taken at autopsy showed no such fiber was present; it wasn’t until later, after Pamela’s fingers had been removed for additional analysis, that the fiber appeared. In short, the new evidence strongly suggests the fiber was planted or possibly the product of evidence contamination.
At the close of the hearing, Judge Brian McCarville ruled that the state’s “entire case” had been undermined and that taken together, the evidence before him pointed “unerringly” to Richards’s innocence.