County of Conviction: San Bernardino
Convicted of: First-Degree Murder
Sentence: 25 Years to Life
Year of Arrest: 1993
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration: $675,000 and counting
On August 10, 1993, Pamela Richards was manually strangled, severely beaten with two fist-sized rocks, and her skull was crushed with a concrete steppingstone. At the time of her death, Pamela lived with her husband, William “Bill” Richards, in a remote desert community in San Bernardino, California. The couple was in the process of building a home on their property. They were temporarily living in a motor home and running their power from a gasoline-powered generator.
August 10, 1993 started as a typical day for Bill Richards. Neighbors reported seeing Bill and Pamela walking and holding hands. Co-workers reported that Bill worked a normal shift and didn’t seem agitated in any way. Bill clocked out of work at his usual time and filled his ice chest with ice from a machine at work because he and Pamela did not have refrigeration at their property. Bill drove home, arriving just after midnight, and was surprised to find that there were no lights on inside the motor home or on the property. Bill went to the shed, restarted the generator, and then walked toward the motor home to find Pamela and ask her why the generator wasn’t running. As he walked toward the motor home, Bill tripped over Pamela’s half-naked body. When he reached down to touch her, Bill discovered that Pamela’s head had been bashed in and her brain exposed. Bill immediately called 911, and when police did not arrive immediately, called two more times over the next half-hour.
Finally, at 12:32 a.m., a police officer arrived, but homicide detectives did not arrive until 3:15 a.m. Because it was dark, the homicide detectives decided not to process the scene until first light, almost three hours later.
Police failed to secure the crime scene while they waited for first light. Dogs roamed the property, obscuring footprints and blood evidence, contaminating the scene, and partially burying Pamela.
With the police unable to place anyone else at the crime scene, Bill was charged with his wife’s murder. Bill had no defensive injuries and gave no confession. After three trials, a jury convicted Bill of Pamela’s murder. Bill’s conviction was based largely on the prosecution’s repeated assertion, through testimony and argument, that no one other than Bill could have committed the murder because there was no evidence that anyone other than Bill and Pamela were at the crime scene. The prosecution introduced a blue thread allegedly from Bill’s shirt found under Pamela’s fingernail. The prosecution also argued that there appeared to be a bite mark on Pamela’s body that allegedly matched Bill’s teeth. After his conviction, Bill was sentenced to life in prison.
Had police conducted a proper and timely investigation in the early morning hours of August 11, 1993, evidence could have been gathered that would have cleared Bill. Bill presented a clear timeline of when he clocked out of work and how long it took him to drive home. Police could have conducted simple time of death tests to determine how long Pamela had been lying dead on the ground. Fingerprinting of the couple’s home, shed, cars, and the two fist-size rocks used to beat Pamela could have led to other suspects. Swabbing the bite mark on Pamela’s body could have garnered saliva that could be used for DNA testing. Police did none of this. And while some DNA testing was done on some of the evidence at the crime scene using the technology available in the early 1990s, that testing was inconclusive and not enough to help Bill avoid life in prison.
In 2001, the California Innocence Project filed a post-conviction DNA testing motion on Bill’s behalf. The items sought to be tested included the murder weapons, several items at the house that were covered in blood, and the hairs found under Pamela’s fingernails. The testing revealed that the DNA on the murder weapons and the hairs under Pamela’s fingernails belonged to neither Bill nor Pamela.
Judge Brian McCarville of the San Bernardino Superior Court granted Bill an evidentiary hearing to present his evidence beginning in January of 2009. The hearing took place over several days in the spring and summer months of that year. At the hearing, the California Innocence Project challenged the state’s evidence presented against Bill at his 1997 trial. Two bite mark experts who had previously testified against Bill in 1997 explained to the court how current bite mark science excluded Bill as the contributor of the mark found on Pamela. The blue fiber found at autopsy under Pamela’s fingernail supposedly matching the shirt Bill was wearing that night was missing from photographs of the fingers before police moved Pamela from the crime scene to the morgue, leading to the possibility that the fiber was planted there in the crime lab. And, of course, California Innocence Project presented the DNA evidence showing a male, not Bill, wielded the murder weapon and struggled with Pam before she died.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge McCarville determined that the totality of the evidence presented required reversal of Bill’s conviction: “Taking the evidence as to the tuft fiber . . . and the DNA and the bite mark evidence, the Court finds that the entire prosecution case has been undermined, and that [Bill] has established his burden of proof to show that the evidence before me points unerringly to innocence. Not only does the bite mark evidence appear to be questionable, it puts [Bill] as being excluded. And. . .the DNA evidence establishes that someone other than [Bill] and the victim was at the crime scene.”
Bill’s celebration of the court’s decision was short-lived. The district attorney appealed Judge McCarville’s decision and petitioned to have the superior court grant a stay of the reversal pending its appeal. The California Court of Appeal reversed Judge McCarville’s ruling. As of this writing, Bill remains in county jail awaiting a hearing with the California Supreme Court. To make matters worse, Bill was diagnosed with cancer and has been receiving inadequate care while in custody. He may die before this case is resolved.