Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Jail Break

December 7th, 2010 6:59 PM

The State of California vs. William Richards

On August 10, 1993, Pamela Richards was severely beaten with two fist-sized rocks, manually strangled, and her skull was crushed with a concrete steppingstone. At the time of her death, Pamela was living with her husband, William 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.

August 10, 1993 was a typical day for William Richards. Neighbors reported that he was seen walking with Pamela holding hands. Co-workers reported that he worked a normal shift and didn't seem agitated in any way. He clocked out from work at his usual time and filled his ice chest with ice from a machine at work because he didn't have refrigeration at his property. He drove home, arriving just after midnight, and was surprised to find that there were no lights on inside his motor home or on his property. He went to their shed and restarted his generator, and then walked toward the motor home to find Pamela and ask her why the generator wasn't restarted. Walking across the yard he experienced the horrific act of tripping over Pamela's half-naked body, his hands discovering that her head had been bashed in and her brain exposed.

William immediately called 911, and called two more times over the next half-hour. Finally, at 12:32 a.m., an officer arrived, but homicide detectives didn't arrive until 3:15 a.m. Because it was dark, they decided not to process the scene until first light, almost three hours later.

During the time the officers waited to process the crime scene, the area wasn't secured. Dogs were allowed to roam in and out, obscuring footprints and blood evidence, contaminating the scene, and partially burying the victim.

With the police unable to place anyone else on the crime scene, William was put on trial for the murder of his wife. There were no defensive injuries, no confession, and no reason he would have called the police to bring them to his remote desert home had he been the killer. His conviction was largely based on the prosecution's repeated assertion, through testimony and argument, that no one other than William could have committed the murder because there was no evidence that anyone other than William and his wife were at the crime scene. A blue thread that allegedly came from William's shirt and was allegedly found under Pamela's fingernail was introduced and it was argued that there was what appeared to be a bite mark on Pamela's body that allegedly matched William's bite mark. Without another suspect, and after three trials, a jury finally convicted William and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Had a proper and timely investigation been conducted in the early morning hours of August 11, 1993, it is likely that evidence would have been gathered that could have exonerated William. There was a clear timeline of when he clocked out of work, and it could be established how long it took him to drive home. Simple time of death tests could have been conducted to determine how long Pamela had been lying dead on the ground. Fingerprinting of the home, shed, cars, and the two fist-size rocks used to beat Pamela could have led to other suspects. Swabbing the bite size mark on Pamela's body could have garnered saliva that could be used for DNA tests. None of this was done. And while there was some DNA testing done on some of the material on the crime scene using testing available in the early 1990s, that testing was inconclusive and not enough to help William avoid a life in prison.

In 2001, the California Innocence Project filed a post-conviction DNA testing motion on Richards' behalf. The items sought to be tested included the murder weapons, several items at the house that were covered in blood, and the hairs that were found under Pamela's fingernails. The testing revealed that the DNA on the murder weapons and the hairs under Pamela's fingernails were neither William's nor Pamela's.

Judge Brian McCarville of the San Bernardino Superior Court granted Richards an evidentiary hearing to present his evidence beginning in January of 2009. The hearing took place over several days in the spring and summer months of that year. At the hearing, the California Innocence Project challenged the state's evidence that had been presented against him at his trial in 1997. Two bite mark experts who had previously testified against Richards in 1997 were put on the stand to explain how the state of the science today excluded Richards as being the contributor of the bite mark found on Pamela. The blue fiber found at autopsy under the victim's fingernail, and matching the shirt Richards was wearing that night, was found to be missing from photographs of the victim's fingers before she was moved from the crime scene, leading to the possibility that the fiber was planted there in the crime lab. DNA testing revealed that the hair under Pamela's nails belonged to neither her nor William.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge McCarville determined that the totality of the evidence presented at the hearing required reversal of the 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 petitioner 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 the petitioner as being excluded. And...the DNA evidence establishes that someone other than petitioner and the victim was at the crime scene."

The celebration 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. As of this writing, Richards has been awaiting the court's determination of the appeal while remaining in custody for more than a year.

To make matters worse William is suffering from cancer and receiving inadequate care in prison. He may die before this case is resolved.

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