It’s taken 28 years, but William Richards is officially an innocent man.
Three weeks ago, a San Bernardino Superior Court judge declared Richards “factually innocent” of the murder of his wife, Pamela, who was killed in 1993.
Richards went to trial four times in San Bernardino County Superior Court before he was convicted. His first three trials all ended in a mistrial.
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.
On July 8, 1997, Richards was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
From the day of his arrest through his four trials and his appeals, as described by the California Innocence Project (CIP), Richards’ case was one example after another of a botched investigation, questionable testimony, junk science evidence, possibly planted evidence, and bewildering court rulings. (California Lawyer Magazine called a 2012 decision by the California Supreme Court upholding a state Court of Appeal’s reversal of a lower court’s dismissal of Richards’ case the worst decision of the year.)
(Richards filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 charging that his civil rights had been violated, naming several San Bernardino County prosecutors and investigators involved in his case. Several are the same officials who worked on Kevin Cooper’s case. Cooper is on death row for a quadruple murder in 1983 that it is highly unlikely he committed. Richards’ lawsuit is still pending. Cooper’s case is being investigated by a law firm appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom because of credible questions about his guilt and the investigation that led to his arrest and conviction.)
CIP led the way in getting a bill passed in the legislature in 2014 — called the Bill Richards Bill — that changed the law to include discredited forensic testimony (e.g., bite mark evidence as in Richards’ case, fire/arson investigation, lead bullet analysis, shaken baby syndrome, and microscopic hair comparison) as false evidence and grounds for a new trial. CIP then filed a new writ of habeas corpus based on the bill, and the California Supreme 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.
However, Richards was released but not found innocent, which meant he still had a murder conviction on his record and, he says, “No rights as a citizen.” Even worse, without the finding, “They can retry you at any time. They would need new evidence, but they could do it again.”
So for the last two years, he tried to get a hearing on his request for a finding of factual innocence. He finally got the hearing in May, and he and his attorney laid it all out for the Superior Court judge. “We had a bullet point presentation of everything …The unidentified DNA, the unidentified blonde hair underneath [his wife’s] fingernails, the bite marks, I don’t know how the judge could have ruled any other way.”
The finding of factual innocence means Richards can now file for $1,165,780 in state compensation for the years he spent in prison as an innocent man. That figure is based on a state law that pays the wrongfully convicted $140 per day for each day of incarceration served.
Still, Richards isn’t celebrating. “I’ll never be able to put it behind me. We still don’t know who killed my wife,” he says.
But he is reclaiming his life. An engineer by trade, he’s now working in construction with a friend, renovating houses in Washington State. And he has several trips planned that will take him from Indonesia to Europe.
“I’m running for my life,” he says and he means it literally. Richards has prostate cancer, which he contracted while in prison. Even though he had annual physicals, he wasn’t told and it went untreated for four years. As a result, it advanced rapidly. He’s been in remission for several years but says, “When your time is limited and you don’t know how long you’ll live, you live life while you can. I’m just trying to make the most of it while I can.”