CHASING AFTER THE WIND
The order granting the petition was stayed 15 days for the appellate period to lapse. On the tenth day, the district attorney filed its appeal. Until the Richards case, a vacated conviction’s appeal was unprecedented territory for the Project. On appeal, all the case’s facts and evidence are fair game. There was no restriction to the three evidentiary pillars which supported the writ of habeas corpus.
When McCarville left the door open to the Riverside court of appeal, Stiglitz grew wary. “I remember saying to my colleagues that this was scary to me because I knew that we were vulnerable. I thought the judge’s decision was solid. I always thought we should win on appeal; I thought we met the standard. But I always knew the decision was vulnerable because I’ve litigated in this particular court before and there’s no doubt in my mind it’s pro-prosecution.”
A couple of months in advance of oral arguments, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two, filed its unpublished tentative opinion. On the surface, the court issues this document so that each party is prepped on which legal issues should be addressed during oral arguments. “In practice,” Brooks explains, “this tentative opinion has a real chance of becoming the final opinion.” Its content sparked outrage and sadness behind Project walls.
“The People contend the trial court erred in finding that new forensic evidence suggested Defendant’s conviction was fatally flawed, and as a consequence, erred in granting the petition for writ of habeas corpus. We agree and reverse.” In the summary, the appellate court referenced key elements of the prosecution’s case as its basis. Divorce was imminent. Richards had opportunity and motive. The victim was financially irresponsible. The defendant recounted aspects of the crime scene and attack despite the darkness. All footprints were accounted for. There was blood-spatter evidence. “The bite mark evidence was never conclusive, nor was the hair or fibers evidence.”
Oral arguments were delivered at the Riverside court of appeal on Nov. 2, 2010. Judges Art W. McKinster, Thomas E. Hollenhorst and Betty Ann Richli sat left to right in a three-judge panel. From the coffered ceiling, 16 bowl-shaped chandeliers threw meager light around the huge, square room, grazing the California state seal mounted above a wide, rectangular bench. French windows filtered natural light through a wall that separated the brightened chamber from what had the semblance of an open-air urban garden.
Sides were allotted 15 minutes each. Stiglitz did not get far into his presentation before interruptions by the appellate judges. The panel traded exchanges with Stiglitz. In particular, McKinster and Richli appeared emotionally invested. Twice McKinster proclaimed that the purely circumstantial case against Richards was “overwhelming” even without the bite-mark evidence. Hollenhorst was not convinced the bite-mark testimony swung the outcome from mistrial to conviction. The panel regurgitated prosecutorial arguments with seemingly little weight accorded to the defense experts’ contradictory testimony. Deputy Nourse’s time-of-death observations were cited by Richli. “Richards needed her to be stone cold,” McKinster added. Near the end of Stiglitz’s time, a flushed Richli fixed the nearby law clerk, whose task it was to monitor time limits, in an inpatient stare. It was as if to say, “Time’s up.”
“I’ve never had a case where the judges are so aggressively opposed and defensive of their decision,” Stiglitz observes after the proceeding. “What also struck me was that, in all my years of doing legal arguments, this was almost like the bench arguing to me as opposed to vice versa. They weren’t asking questions, they were arguing their case because they didn’t wait for any of the answers…It was very strange.”
At one point, Stiglitz alluded to Zajac’s evidentiary testimony regarding the non-historical nature of the blonde hair found underneath Pam’s fingernail, which also contained third-party DNA.
“Isn’t the hair from an animal?” McKinster asked incredulously.
“It’s just unacceptable that someone who is defending the conviction and presumably read the briefs wasn’t even aware that the hair was a human hair,” Stiglitz reflects. “It borders on the outrageous.”
Years earlier on Aug. 17, 2000, the Superior Court’s judgment on Richards’ conviction was affirmed in full during the initial appeals stage. Hollenhorst authored that final opinion; McKinster and Richli concurred as participants. On Nov. 11, 2010, the identical appellate court officially filed its reversal of Richards’ exoneration in an unpublished opinion.
Almost a year before the Project filed Richards’ habeas petition, elevated levels of prostate-specific antigens (PSA) were detected in the 57-year-old inmate’s blood during a routine medical checkup. High PSA levels are a predictor of prostate cancer. Several months later he was referred to a urologist after a lump appeared on a digital exam. Richards says he was informed of a five-month wait to schedule a biopsy. The Project drafted letters of complaint and the biopsy was expedited to inside a month at Corcoran State Prison. When his blood pressure dropped dangerously low, he says he almost died on the operating table. That night he suffered serious complications as well. Prostate cancer was the diagnosis. While deadly, it is a treatable disease.
In September 2007 he began to undergo radiation treatment and hormone therapy. Beam radiation therapy lasted until January 2008. Because he was bounced from penal institution to institution during the evidentiary hearing, medical care was erratic and irregular. Richards also suffers from high blood pressure and a prolapsed heart value. After a period of remission, the patient and his doctors became aware of steadily rising PSA levels and an enlarged prostate. In September 2008, a urologist noted “clinical evidence of recurrence” in Richards’ chart. In the months to come doctors further recorded PSA levels had an upward trend. On March 3, 2009, Richards asked to see a doctor and inquired about his PSA results from a prior test on February 23. “IMPORTANT! FOLLOW UP ON CANCER TREATMENT,” he wrote on the request form. His Project legal team has fought to improve his healthcare through the court system as well. A March 2010 medical brief cited substandard care including lapses in treatment, hours of unnecessary pain, months without requisite medications and interminable delays for treatment since diagnosis. Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
In an unexpected turn of events, the California Supreme Court recently granted the Project’s request to review Richards’ conviction. Project attorneys expect to present oral arguments in the coming months once a date is calendared—with a final decision to be issued thereafter. Clemency is an appropriate legal remedy if this option falters, Simpson says. “Bill is a perfect candidate for clemency given the posture of the case, and we hope the governor agrees if it comes to that.”
All in all, the Project calculates its total expenditures in litigation of Richards’ case exceed $50,000.
Today, Richards is 62 years old. Close-cropped grey hair frames large ears, full cheeks, deep-set eyes, an aquiline nose and a pallid complexion. Despite his age, he owns a stocky yet angular frame. Over the years, the vast majority of his idle time has been occupied in studying his case. Twice he thought be knew who killed his wife. First he believed it was George Patrick. Later, he guessed it might have been Reséndiz. Before his illness, a lot of time was spent in prison workshops. He taught welding and assisted fellow inmates earn their GEDs. According to his 2009 parole interview, his job evaluations behind bars have graded from “above average” to “exceptional.” The psychologist’s overall risk assessment for Richards rated his violent potential in free society as low. At one facility, he claims he encountered sadistic prison staff. There have been moments he’s been forced to defend himself against other prisoners. On an average day he eats breakfast, works out, walks the prison yard for hours when he’s allowed, exercises, watches TV, and reads math and engineering books before lights out. Unlike other inmates, he says he doesn’t naturally fit into any social groups. He simply never acclimated to prison life. Few visitors come nowadays, as most of his friends have either died or moved on.
The takeaway for others, he says, is that anyone is susceptible to a wrongful conviction given government resources and a judicial system willing to exercise its power at any cost. “I worked for a living, didn’t drink, smoke or use drugs. My whole life was taken.”
While he can’t envision how he would’ve spent the last 19 years as a free man, the years of incarceration have acquainted him with the depths of human agony.
“It would be hard to pick the worst memory. I can say there are no good memories. There isn’t any aspect that has made time more bearable…I got along with most men, but was never close friends with any. Even with no privacy, it’s very lonely. Never alone but at the same time, always alone.”
“There are two victims here,” Quaas says. “One of ’em happened to [be] Pam and one of ’em happened to [be] Bill. There are two victims in this.”
A couple of weeks before the ghastly crime that would blot out their future, Bill and Pam Richards visited Knott’s Berry Farm near Anaheim. At the petting zoo, a husband watched his wife’s interaction with a girl not much older than a toddler. It remains his most cherished memory in almost 24 years together.
“This little girl was asking a man who looked like her grandfather for some money so she could buy some pellets to feed the animals. He patted his pocket and walked away. Within minutes, Pam was squatted down to the girl, pouring a handful of feed pellets into her hand. It was a tender scene that I will never forget.”