A man who has served jail time for more than 20 years is now free because of the help he received from the California Innocence Project based at California Western School of Law.
In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the California Supreme Court published an opinion Thursday reversing the conviction of William Richards, who was accused of murdering his wife, Pamela.
The decision came down after lawyers at the California Innocence Project 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. In 2001, lawyers 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 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 own 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 California Innocence Project receives approximately 1,500 claims from inmates each year and has freed 20 wrongfully convicted clients since its inception.