County of Conviction: San Bernardino
Convicted of: First-Degree Murder
Sentence: 25 Years to Life
Year of Arrest: 1993
Years Served: 23 Years
Released: June 21, 2016
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration*: $1,867,669
*According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office 2018-19 annual costs per CA inmate
Years Served: 23
On August 10, 1993, Pamela Richards was manually strangled, severely beaten with rocks, and her skull was crushed with a concrete stepping-stone. 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.
Neighbors reported seeing Bill and Pamela walking and holding hands on the day of Pamela’s murder. 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 —as the couple had no refrigerator on the property—filled his ice chest with ice from a machine at work. Bill got back home just after midnight. 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. 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, 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.
Police officers admitted that they had already determined Bill was the perpetrator while they were driving to the scene, and were focused only on getting a confession. Bill had no defensive injuries and gave no confession.
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 three trials, a jury convicted Bill of Pamela’s murder, and he 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. Simple time of death tests showed Pamela had been lying dead on the ground for hours before Bill arrived home. Fingerprinting of the couple’s home, shed, cars, and the two fist-size rocks showed other suspects were on the scene that the police did not investigate. Swabbing the bite mark on Pamela’s body revealed DNA samples which did not match Bill. Police did none of this.
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 the true perpetrator: a male contributor who has not yet been identified.
Judge Brian McCarville of the San Bernardino Superior Court granted Bill an evidentiary hearing beginning in January of 2009. 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 the 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. In 2013, in what California Lawyer Magazine called the worst decision of the year, the California Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s reversal of Judge McCarville’s decision. Two years later, the California Innocence Project worked to get a new bill introduced in the legislature that now allows experts to recant testimony in California. Soon thereafter, CIP filed a petition seeking a reversal under the new law.
On May 26, 2016, the California Supreme Court reversed William Richards’ conviction in a 7-0 decision, finding the bite mark evidence was central to the conviction and all other prosecution evidence had been met with substantial resistance by the defense. On June 21, 2016, Bill walked out of the West Valley Detention Center, having been granted release on his own recognizance while awaiting a potential fifth trial.