EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Reversed California Murder Conviction Resulted From Faulty Bite Mark & Lividity Arguments

You might have seen the recent Intercept article about the Supreme Court of California tossing Bill Richards' conviction for murdering his wife, Pamela. Richards' conviction was reversed based upon faulty bite mark testimony presented by the prosecution. 

[I]t took the state four attempts to convict Richards — two full trials ended in a hung jury and a third ended in a mistrial during jury selection — and prosecutors were successful only after putting on the stand a legendary forensic dentist who testified that Richards’s highly unique lower dentition was a match for a bite mark found on Pamela’s hand. The dentist, Norman “Skip” Sperber, told the jury that based on his 40-plus years in the field, he could say that out of 100 people, only “one or two or less” would have the same “unique feature” in their lower teeth.

In fact, however, Sperber was wrong. In 2008 he recanted his testimony, saying that he had cited statistics that lacked scientific support and never should have done so, “because it’s inappropriate to cite percentages or things resembling percentages unless there has been some prior scientific study” to back up the assertion. Based on Sperber’s recantation (and that of another dentist, Greg Golden, who testified for the defense, along with additional testimony about new DNA evidence that matched an unknown male), a district judge in 2009 said that the evidence now before the court pointed “unerringly” to Richards’s innocence.

Richards' conviction, however, was also based upon the prosecution's misleading lividity arguments. 

Here were the pertinent facts in Richards' case:

On the night of August 10, 1993, Richards clocked out of work at 11:03 p.m. and drove home. (5 Tr. R.T. 867.) San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Navarro recreated the drive from Richards' work to his home and determined that if Richards left his place of employment at 11:06 p.m. and kept up with the flow of traffic, it would have taken forty-one minutes for Richards to drive home. (5 Tr. R.T. 867-72.) Based on this analysis, police believed Richards arrived home at 11:47 p.m. (5 Tr. R.T. 872.)

According to Richards, upon his arrival at home on the night of Pamela's murder, he initially noted that no lights were on. (4 Tr. R.T. 645; 8 Tr. R.T. 1849.) Richards went to the shed and had a glass of iced tea. (8 Tr. R.T. 1849.) He then left the shed, walked toward the trailer, and saw his wife laying face down by the porch. (4 Tr. R.T. 592.) He turned her over to see what was wrong, and his fingers went into a hole in her head. (4 Tr. R.T. 592.) Richards cradled his wife, and then he heard the phone ring. (4 Tr. R.T. 557.)

At approximately 11:55 p.m., Eugene Price (Pamela's former lover) called Richards' residence, and Richards answered the phone. (4 Tr. R.T. 557.) Thus, even relying on the prosecution's time line and theory of the case, Richards had only eight minutes in which to kill his wife. (4 Tr. R.T. 557; 6 Tr. R.T. 1382.)

Richards told Price that Pamela was dead. (4 Tr. R.T. 559.) Richards asked Price what he should do, and Price told him to call 911. (4 Tr. R.T. 561.)....

At 11:58 p.m., Richards called 911 and reported his wife was dead. (2 Tr. R.T. 168.) Richards placed two more calls to 911 at 12:06 a.m. and 12:33 a.m., frantically urging officers to hurry. (2 Tr. R.T. 168-69.)....

Homicide detectives did not arrive on the scene until 3:15 a.m. (2 Tr. R.T. 228.) After the first officer responded to the scene, three or four dogs entered the crime scene. (4 Tr. R.T. 642.) Because it was dark, the detectives decided not to process the scene until first light (approximately 6:00 a.m.) more than six hours after the body was found. (1 Tr. R.T. 94; 2 Tr. R.T. 327.)

Dr. Frank Sheridan, Chief Medical Examiner for the Coroner's Office of San Bernardino County, performed the autopsy in Pamela and "found evidence of lividity on Pamela's back. (3 Tr. R.T. 393.) According to Dr. Sheridan, it usually takes at least two hours for lividity to become obvious, and it becomes fixed at six to ten hours. (3 Tr. R.T. 394, 397.)"

At Richards' murder trial, "the prosecution relied on testimony regarding lividity to conclude that Richards lied about the position of Pamela's dead body." In other words, the prosecution claimed that the lividity evidence showed that Pamela was on her back after death whereas Richards claimed that she was face down. In his brief, however, Richards noted the flaw with this argument:

Yet lividity takes two hours to become obvious and ten hours to become fixed. If Pamela had been killed less than two hours prior to Richards' arrival and he moved her from face down to face up, the evidence of lividity found by the coroner would have been the result of Richards' actions and not evidence that he lied.

In other words, Pamela could have died face down at 11:00 P.M., been turned over by Richards at 11:50ish, and remained in that position until at least 6:00 A.M. when the officers finally processed the scene. Under this scenario, it would make perfect sense that Pamela had posterior lividity but not anterior lividity.



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