California court tosses murder conviction in bite-mark case

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Posted: May 26, 2016 8:04 PM
California court tosses murder conviction in bite-mark case

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The California Supreme Court Thursday threw out the conviction of a man found guilty of killing his wife after jurors heard bite-mark testimony that was later recanted.

A unanimous high court cited a new state law inspired by William Richards' murder case in its ruling. The law says expert opinion that the same expert later repudiates is false evidence.

The dentist who provided the bite-mark testimony in Richards' case later took it back, the Supreme Court said. Since the testimony was instrumental in Richards' conviction, the conviction must be thrown out.

Richards was convicted in 1997 in the strangling of his wife, Pamela, after the dentist testified that a mark on her hand was consistent with the defendant's teeth.

The 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 the new state law.

"We're thrilled that Bill's decades-long incarceration for a crime he did not commit will soon come to an end," Richards' attorney, Jan Stiglitz, said in an emailed statement. "We also hope that this decision will pave the way for other victims of 'junk science' to find a path to freedom."

A message to the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office was not immediately returned. Prosecutors have previously said they did not think the dentist recanted his testimony, and that the testimony was not key to Richards' conviction. Other evidence against Richards included a deputy's observation that he knew a great deal about the crime scene and his wife's open affair, prosecutors said.

The California Supreme Court said in its ruling the case against Richards was based on contested circumstantial evidence.

"Accordingly, with the exception of the bite mark evidence, the defense had a substantial response to much of the prosecution's evidence against petitioner," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said. "Under these unique circumstances, it is reasonably probable that the false evidence ... at petitioner's 1997 jury trial affected the outcome of that proceeding."