California high court takes up man's murder conviction again

AP News
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Posted: Mar 20, 2015 5:26 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The California Supreme Court agreed to reconsider its decision not to overturn the murder conviction of a man charged with the slaying of his wife nearly 20 years ago.

The court issued an order this week asking prosecutors why William Richards' conviction should not be overturned on the basis of a new state law inspired by his case.

The law, which took effect in January, makes it easier for defendants to get their convictions thrown out when experts later repudiate their trial testimony. It prompted attorneys for Richards, who has always maintained his innocence, to again ask the California Supreme Court to throw out a jury's guilty verdict.

"This is exactly what we were hoping for," said Richards' attorney, Jan Stiglitz, with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law.

Richards, 65, was convicted of murder in 1997 in the strangling of his wife after a San Bernardino County jury heard an expert testify that a mark on her hand was consistent with the defendant's teeth.

The expert — a forensic dentist — later said the injury might not even be a bite mark.

A San Bernardino County judge overturned Richards' conviction, but a state appeals court reinstated it. In a 4-3 decision in 2012, the State Supreme Court sided with the appeals court, saying a change in expert testimony does not necessarily make it false and thus possible grounds to vacate a conviction. The testimony must be shown to be "objectively untrue," the majority said.

The ruling prompted a new state law that says any opinion that an expert repudiates is false evidence. Under state law, if the false evidence is shown to be key to the person's alleged guilt, the court has authority to overturn the conviction.

A call to a spokesman for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office was not immediately returned. But prosecutors have previously said they did not think the dentist recanted his testimony, and that the testimony was not key to Richards' conviction.