“I just couldn’t believe they could do this to me. I came out broke and homeless.”
William (Bill) Richards is referring to the San Bernardino County prosecutors and investigators who, in 1993, arrested Richards for the murder of his wife, Pamela. Over the next four years, they tried him four times before finally getting a first degree murder conviction in the fourth trial.
What finally convinced a jury to convict him in his fourth trial in July 1997 was testimony from Dr. Norman Sperber, a dentist and forensic odontologist. He testified that a bite mark on Pamela’s hand had to have been made by Richards because, out of 100 people, only “one or two or less” would have the same “unique feature” in their lower teeth that Richards had. He was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In 2001, the California Innocence Project began investigating Richards’ case, and six years later, filed a writ of habeas corpus claiming that DNA testing on the cinder block used to crush Pamela’s skull, and on the hair found under her fingernails did not match Richards’. Even more important was CIP’s discovery that the autopsy photo of Pamela’s bite mark was distorted and, once corrected, was determined by experts not to match Richards’ teeth. Subsequently, Dr. Sperber recanted his testimony in an affidavit for the habeas petition stating that he was not “scientifically accurate,” and “I cannot now say with certainty that the injury on the victim’s hand is a human bite mark injury.”
The San Bernardino County Superior Court vacated Richards’ conviction in 2009, but the district attorney’s office appealed, a state appeals court reversed the ruling and in 2012, the California Supreme Court upheld that reversal, finding that the new evidence did not “point unerringly to petitioner’s innocence.” In addition, Richards’ appeal “failed to establish that any of the evidence offered at his 1997 trial was false.” (CIP says the ruling was described by California Lawyer Magazine “as the worst decision of the year.”)
In response, CIP led the way in getting legislation passed in 2014 — called the Bill Richards Bill — that changed the law to include discredited forensic testimony as false evidence and grounds for a new trial. CIP then filed a new writ of habeas corpus based on the bill, and the Court unanimously granted the writ and vacated Richards’ conviction. He was released in 2016, and one week after walking out of prison, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office dismissed the charge, 23 years after they arrested him.
“I’m a walking miscarriage of justice, but I’m proud of the fact that my case was so vile, so wrong, that legislation was passed that if you’re going to have these experts testify they’d better know what they’re talking about,” Richards says.
He has filed a civil lawsuit for compensation for the years he spent in prison, asking for a little over a million dollars. ”I don’t think there’s enough money in the world, but all I can do is try to recover something. I just want to enjoy a little more of life,” he says.
The problem is, Richards may not have a lot of years left. He is 69 years old and has advanced prostate cancer. It was detected in a prison exam in 2003, but prison officials didn’t tell him, and he wasn’t treated until five years later. “By then it had moved in,” Richards says.
And the state is fighting his lawsuit. “It could take years and years. And I may not have the years. They’re stalling because they think if I die it goes away. But I have a living trust. If I die, the lawsuit still goes on. I’ve named as my beneficiaries the California Innocence Project, Wounded Warrior Project, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and Child Refuge. I don’t have any family, so the best I can do is make something good come out of what they did to me.”
The State of California took 23 years of his life, his health, and the time he needed to grieve the death of his wife, whose severely battered body he discovered when he arrived at their Mojave Desert home after work one night. In spite of no real evidence tying him to the crime, they zeroed in on Richards from the beginning, and in the process let the real killer or killers go free, depriving Richards of ever knowing who killed his wife and why.
“In 25 years I’ve never been able to sit down and put her to rest and move on,” he says. “But I’ve got to play the cards I’ve been dealt.”