In a stunning break with reality the California Supreme Court eviscerated a California law that provides habeas corpus relief for inmates who were convicted based on false evidence. The result is that a wrongfully convicted man, CIP client William Richards, may have to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The now-gutted False Evidence Statute once offered relief whenever a convict established that false evidence was relied upon to obtain his or her conviction. Using arguments that strain logic, a divided California Supreme Court held that, if a person was convicted based on false evidence provided by an expert witness, there can now be no relief under the False Evidence statute. (emphasis added) The court reasoned that expert testimony is simply opinion, and opinion cannot be true or false.
The court’s decision shattered William Richards’ hope that he would ever live as a free man again. Two decades ago, Richards was convicted of killing his wife Pamela. The evidence used to convict him was circumstantial and weak, except for expert testimony offered by one damning witness. Famed forensic dentist, Dr. Norman Sperber, testified that Pamela had a bite mark on her hand that matched Richards’ teeth. Richards and less than two percent of the population have teeth that could have made the bruise on Pamela’s hand. Because Richards was not convicted in three earlier trials that did not include the bite mark evidence, it is indisputable that he was convicted based on Sperber’s testimony.
In 2010, Dr. Sperber testified at an evidentiary hearing that his testimony was false and Richards’ teeth did not match the bite mark on Pamela’s hand. Based on Sperber’s recantation, Judge Brian McCarville overturned Richards’ conviction. Yesterday, the California Supreme Court published its opinion which disagreed with McCarville and carved out the new expert witness exception to the False Evidence statute.
The court’s new exception to the False Evidence statute is stunning for a few reasons. First, consider the absurdity of outcomes under the new exception. If a defendant is convicted based on eyewitness testimony, and the eyewitness comes back later and says “I was mistaken, it was not John who robbed me, it was Joe who robbed me,” then the conviction that resulted from mistaken eyewitness identification can be overturned. But consider a case where a defendant is convicted based on a doctor’s expert testimony linking DNA evidence to the defendant. If the doctor recants and testifies that she was mistaken and it was Joe’s, not John’s, DNA on the murder weapon, the inmate can now find no relief under the False Evidence statute. Given the enormous weight juries place on expert testimony, this result is absurd.
Secondly, as the court debated whether flawed expert opinion can be considered false evidence, William Richards sat in jail pondering his fate. The jury convicted him because an expert told them the bite mark impression on Pamela’ hand matched his teeth. Now, the same expert, after garnering years of experience and after seeing a better photo of the bite mark, told the court that Richards’ teeth could not have created the impression. Logically, Richards should be exonerated. Instead of thinking of the issue in this manner, the court argued about semantics and debated whether opinion can be false. Follow the majority’s logic: in one person’s opinion, the sky is blue. In another person’s opinion, the sky is green. Even if the sky is actually blue, the person who opines that it is green has a true opinion. Thus, an expert who testifies based on his or her opinion has not offered false evidence, even when the testimony is flat wrong.
In addition to the use of this strained logic, there is absolutely no evidence that the legislature intended expert opinion to be excepted from the False Evidence statute. The statute was intended to correct the injustice that occurs when juries rely on something that is not true when they vote to convict. The statute was intended to correct the injustice that occurred when William Richards was convicted of killing his wife.
In a system where our stated goal is to find the truth and to mete out justice based on the truth, it is disheartening to have yet another road block thrown in the path. The truth is, Richards did not bite Pamela. Whoever left that injury on Pamela killed her. Richards is innocent. His continued incarceration based on a new absurd exception to the False Evidence statute is patently unjust, and we must find a way to free this innocent man.