In a wholly unexpected move, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on June 28 dismissed murder charges against Bill Richards, who spent 23 years behind bars for the brutal murder of his wife, Pamela. Richards has vociferously maintained that he is innocent of the August 10, 1993, strangulation and bludgeoning of his wife on the couple’s property in California’s High Desert. The Richards case is controversial and has been long considered a wrongful conviction based on the discredited junk science of bite-mark analysis.
“I feel great,” Richards told The Intercept after the dismissal. “It’s like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders — more like off my heart.”
Prosecutors tried three times to convict Richards — two trials ended in a hung jury and a third ended in a mistrial during jury selection — before calling to the witness stand during Richards’s fourth trial in 1997 a renowned forensic dentist, Dr. Norman “Skip” Sperber, to testify that a lesion on the top of Pamela’s hand was a bite mark and a clear match to Richards’s allegedly unique lower dentition. Richards was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Sperber recanted his testimony during a 2008 pretrial hearing, saying there was no science to back up his assertions at trial; after the hearing, Judge Brian McCarville concluded that the evidence before him pointed “unerringly” to Richards’s innocence. In a unanimous opinion delivered late last month, the California Supreme Court finally vacated Richards’s conviction, noting that without Sperber’s testimony, the state’s case was weak at best, and the false bite-mark evidence had likely impacted the outcome of Richards’s trial.
Despite those court rulings, as of mid-June the DA’s office had indicated to Richards’s attorneys with the California Innocence Project that it would try Richards again, for a fifth time. Although the public affairs officer for elected DA Michael Ramos insisted in a series of emails to The Intercept that no decision had been made about whether the office would again prosecute Richards, a CIP lawyer confirmed that the case had been set for trial beginning in mid-July. And on June 21, the DA’s office argued, unsuccessfully, that Richards should remain behind bars; instead, he was released that day on a personal bond.
The dismissal came just two days before a planned pretrial hearing where the CIP was set to argue that there is insufficient evidence to try the case again, the decision to retry Richards was a vindictive one, and the case should be dismissed “in the interests of justice.”
The Tuesday morning hearing at the courthouse in Victorville lasted just minutes, with prosecutor Michael Risley — the same prosecutor who tried Richards in 1997 — announcing that Ramos’s office had determined that the charges should be dismissed, but with the caveat that they could eventually be refiled. Richards’s lawyers said Risley indicated that the case needed further investigation, but in an email exchange the DA’s public affairs officer, Christopher Lee, declined to elaborate on whether his office would seek to reopen the case with an eye toward identifying other possible suspects or whether the office is still convinced that Richards is guilty. Instead, Lee provided only a basic statement, confirming that the case had been dismissed and writing, “No final decision has been made at this time as to whether or not we plan on refiling the case. We are currently re-evaluating the defense’s new evidence.” He continued, “Once we have completed our review we will determine the appropriate course of action.”
During the 2008 hearing during which Sperber recanted, Richards’s attorneys also brought forward newly developed evidence revealing the DNA profile of an unknown male on a paving stone and a cinder block used to crush Pamela’s skull. DNA evidence was also extracted from a nearly inch-long hair retrieved from under one of Pamela’s fingernails. Additionally, the lawyers presented expert testimony that a blue tuft of fiber that a crime scene analyst in 1997 said was consistent with the fibers of a blue work shirt Richards was wearing the night he found his murdered wife was likely planted or the result of evidence contamination.
Given everything, Richards’s attorneys feel confident that Tuesday’s dismissal of charges will bring to a close Richards’s more than two-decades-long criminal justice nightmare. “Today went as good as it can go,” said Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of the CIP. “I’m confident this is the end. The case was very thin when we first took it on, then we knocked out every aspect of the case along the way. The Supreme Court reversed it; a judge in a habeas hearing reversed it. So, I’m pretty confident this is the end of the line for this case.”
Richards, now 66, is determined to put together a new and rewarding life, and he is eager to finally get proper treatment for chronic prostate cancer that was poorly treated in prison. But he is also saddened by the realization that the murder of his wife will likely go unsolved, her murderer unpunished. “That’s the biggest problem right there,” he said. “I’ll go to my grave regretting that we’ll never know who did this — or how many other people he’s done it to. I’ll take that pain to my deathbed.”