California Supreme Court Reverses Conviction of William Richards
Wrongful conviction based largely on discredited bite mark science
San Diego, May 26, 2016 – In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the California Supreme Court published an opinion today reversing the conviction of William Richards, who has served more than two decades for a crime he did not commit. The decision came down after lawyers at the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law presented new DNA evidence showing another person’s DNA on the murder weapon and under the victim’s fingernails, and after the key prosecution witness recanted his expert testimony implicating Richards.
The California Innocence Project has been working on Richards’s case since the organization’s inception in 1999, and the Richards case was one of the first they reviewed. In 2001, the California Innocence Project requested DNA testing on items of evidence that were never tested at the time of trial. Those DNA test results revealed an unknown male DNA profile on the murder weapon and hair under the victim’s fingernails. Richards’s case took another turn after the star prosecution witness in the case recanted his expert testimony that Richards had to have committed the crime because his dentition matched a bite mark found on the victim’s body. The prosecution’s expert stated in 2007 that he never should have testified Richards was a match, and that in his professional opinion, based on further review and recent technological advancements in forensic sciences, not only was the mark not left by Richards, it may not have been a bite mark all along.
In 2009, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville reversed Bill’s conviction, finding the evidence completely undermined the prosecution’s case and pointed unerringly to innocence. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal reversed Judge McCarville’s decision shortly thereafter. In 2012, in what California Lawyer Magazine called “the worst decision of the year,” the California Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision, finding that even though the expert recanted his testimony, an expert’s opinion could never be true or false, and thus Richards was not entitled to a reversal of his conviction. Two years later, the California Innocence Project worked to change the law to allow experts to recant their testimony. In January of 2015, the California Innocence Project filed another petition to free Bill and finally got his conviction reversed with the California Supreme Court decision today.
In reversing the conviction, the California Supreme Court noted that “the case against petitioner [at trial] was entirely based on circumstantial evidence, and much of that evidence was heavily contested” by the defense at trial. “[W]ith the exception of the bite mark evidence, the defense had a substantial response to much of the prosecution‘s evidence against petitioner,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the majority. The court further noted that the bite mark evidence had been “clearly repudiated” and that “new technological advances undermined” the bite mark evidence presented at trial. Because the bite mark evidence played such a central issue in the case, the court concluded the conviction could not stand.
“It has taken far too long but today, the highest court in California has now acknowledged that William Richards’ conviction must be thrown out because it was based on false evidence,” said Jan Stiglitz, Professor at California Western School of Law and former Co-Director of the California Innocence Project. “Given that we have also documented the existence of DNA not belonging to Richards on both the murder weapon and under the victim’s fingernail, we hope that the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office will also recognize that it prosecuted the wrong person and will not seek to retry Richards for a crime he did not commit.”
The resolution of the case came about after the California Innocence Project secured federal funding through the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (“Cal-OES”) to look into and litigate cases involving DNA. DNA has become the gold standard for forensic evidence and this funding has allowed the California Innocence Project to bring innocence cases like Richards to light.
About the California Innocence Project
The California Innocence Project is a California Western School of Law clinical program dedicated to the release of wrongfully convicted inmates and providing an outstanding educational experience for students enrolled in the clinic. The California Innocence Project receives approximately 1,500 claims from inmates each year and has freed 20 wrongfully convicted clients since its inception. Read more at: https://CaliforniaInnocenceProject.org
California Western School of Law is the independent, ABA/AALS-accredited San Diego law school that prepares graduates for the practice of law through a carefully sequenced program of study combining traditional legal theory with hands-on learning in real and simulated client environments.
For five years in a row, California Western has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in recognition of the school’s numerous community-focused projects including the California Innocence Project, Community Law Projects, Mediation Clinic, Bail Project, and more. Students, faculty, and staff yearly donate more than 20,000 pro bono and service hours to nonprofits, clinical programs, and law offices.
Read more stories of success on our website: CaliforniaWestern.edu