by Richard Darvas | February 11, 2012 2:59 am
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”
—Frederick Douglass’ 1857 address on West India Emancipation
By Richard Darvas
February 13, 2012
It’s mid-summer in Hesperia, California. The High Desert opens its jaws as a drawbridge, setting mountain ranges at opposite ends of a wide pan. Northwest of San Bernardino National Forest, the I-15 hooks into a sultry valley beyond mountains that jut skyward in the semblance of three uneven rows of incisors. Farther into the Mojave Desert’s interior, near the murder site, denuded large sagebrush gnarl as skeletons in repose. Above, electrical towers link drooping lines for miles. Transmissions crackle through the dusty air like an unseen plague of locusts. Less than a mile from the Richardses’ former residence, train tracks bisect the landscape as a tongue. Slightly north marks a graveyard fringe of Joshua trees, whose bladelike leaves riposte from upraised arms. It is a place seemingly darkest at midday than at any other hour.
Eighteen years earlier, William Richards clocked out at 11:03 p.m. from a manufacturing plant in the city of Corona, where he worked the swing shift as a mechanical engineer. Off State Route 138 he came to a stop under a streetlight on a dirt road, removed a pistol from a leather book pouch, loaded it, set it aside, exited his Ford Ranger and locked its hubs to facilitate uphill driving. Sometime before midnight, he pulled onto his rural Hesperia property through a makeshift arch constructed of beams cannibalized from wooden telephone poles. His tan-and-silver pickup climbed the curvilinear dirt driveway, which rose about 150 yards to a small plateau tucked into a ridgeline. The country residence was unlit. A meager storage shack, Toyota motor home and a wooden generator shed hid in the desert gloom.
Richards surmounted the hillside shelf and parked his four-wheel drive next to his wife’s camouflage Suzuki Samurai. As he rotated the ignition and removed his keys, he felt a twinge of disappointment. He had expected his wife of 22 years to wait up for him so that they could cuddle, but the darkness betrayed that hope. Into the night he stepped, onto the shack’s porch where he found its wooden exterior and screen interior doors both ajar. Upon entry he clicked on a battery-powered fluorescent light that dangled overhead. Now assured of an illuminated path, he doubled back toward his pickup. In the frail light, he caught a glimpse that would be the entombment of his soul.
Near the porch lay the half-naked body of 40-year-old Pamela Richards, who had thrashed and struggled to shield herself as she was bludgeoned with fists, softball-size rocks and a concrete stepping stone. Later, in a barbaric incidence of overkill, the assailant flung a cinder block onto her face, essentially cratering the left eye socket, pulpifying brain tissue and filleting her cheek and ear to ribbons.
Bill Richards lifted the lifeless arms of his wife, flipped the bloodstained cinder block off her head, turned her body face-up and cradled her in his grasp. When he outstretched his hand to support her head, his fingers inadvertently poked through the gaping wound. Craning his ear to her chest, he heard no heartbeat. There he sat, dimly groping for answers. She had tripped and fallen. He cursed himself for not providing a more suitable home for his wife. Then came a fleeting thought of suicide. Suddenly the phone rang. He rose to his feet with a disembodied volition before a voice on the other end asked for Pam. Bill replied that she was dead. After the brief call ended, he dialed 911 at 11:58 p.m. Holding his wife a second time, the violent truth of what had actually happened began to cut through the initial shock. At 12:38 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1993, the first patrolman finally arrived on scene.
Homicide detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department identified four areas of activity at the crime scene. These were demarcated with A-shaped yellow placards numbered one through 31. About 15 feet apart and running roughly parallel to one another, the motor home served as main living quarters while the 10-by-15-foot wooden shed served as a cluttered storage space. A narrow fenced enclosure connected the shack along a westerly line to the small generator shed, about 35 feet removed from the other structures. Industrial barrels, irrigation hoses, propane tanks, gasoline containers and other miscellaneous objects were scattered throughout the area. All wore the sun-bleached fading of age. Particularly from a birds-eye perspective, the five-acre property was more Spartan outpost than residence. Since no missing items could be readily identified, detectives quickly eliminated robbery as a motive.
In the deputy coroner’s report of death completed at the crime scene, William Richards’ listing as “husband” was asterisked. Below, the accompanying handwritten entry read “Suspect in P.C. 187.” California’s penal code defines “187” as the crime of murder.
Richards was arrested and charged with first degree murder on Sept. 3, 1993. On July 6, 1994, the first trial commenced. It ended in a mistrial on August 29 after the jury was split, 6-6. The second trial began on Oct. 24, 1994, but abruptly ended in mistrial three days later after the court recused itself due to improper communication between the judge and a juror. A third trial opened on Nov. 15, 1994. Again, a mistrial was declared when jurors failed to reach a verdict on Jan. 5, 1995. The jury deadlocked, 11-1, in favor of conviction. May 29, 1997, marked the beginning of the fourth trial. After nearly four years and three full jury trials, Richards was convicted of murdering his wife on July 8, 1997. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
When Richards’ appeals were exhausted, he applied for legal assistance in 2001 from the California Innocence Project. Soon thereafter, Project attorneys pledged to defend Richards as their pro bono client. One of their first tasks was to trace the trajectory of the case backward through law enforcement’s eyes.
While inadmissible in a trial setting, investigators soon began to gather hearsay and polygraph evidence against Richards. In fact, hours into the homicide investigation, allegations of spousal abuse had already surfaced.
Credible or otherwise, it’s clear from police interviews that Pam had complained of domestic violence to at least three members of her social circle and one social worker. Two purported friends of Pam relayed firsthand accounts of assaultive acts. One reported Bill “grabbed Pam by the wrist” and “pushed Pam away.” Another, a neighbor who had loaned money to Pam unbeknownst to her husband, confronted her about her failure to repay the debt in Bill’s presence. In a police interview, the neighbor referenced details of a slap and punch to the abdomen, which were absent in later courtroom testimony conducted in a hearing outside the jury’s presence. A third person echoed Bill’s recollection of an altercation where Pam said that she slammed a telephone receiver against Bill’s hand, reportedly fearing she had broken it.
Additionally, Pam visited a social worker twice in the month before her death. In these sessions, a therapist observed that Pam had very low self-confidence and -esteem, and she was timid. Despite allusions to physical and emotional abuse, Pam confided that Bill was recently receptive to change. In her case notes, the social worker wrote that Pam was “setting limits with spouse with positive results. He was initially listening to her.” The therapist revealed to police that this response was atypical of a battering male.
According to numerous sources, Pam had spent several months vacillating between striking out on her own and resolving her marital problems.
Likely the most acerbic voice belonged to Pam’s boyfriend, whom for the purpose of this story will be known by the pseudonym George Patrick. “Her husband had verbally abused her, beat her continuously,” Patrick told police. “He had threatened to kill her on more than one occasion.” Patrick is a former helicopter flight instructor at Hesperia Airport with whom Pam shared an extramarital relationship during the last year of her life. On the night before Pam’s murder, he claimed he’d urged Pam to leave her husband immediately. “She said, ‘I’ll be okay. It’s my problem, not your problem.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not your problem, it’s our problem.'” Patrick failed to respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
Patrick was never eyewitness to any abuse. However, almost a year after the homicide and contemporaneous with the first trial, Patrick phoned authorities to arrange contact with one of the two alleged eyewitnesses. Patrick’s former roommate and close friend admitted skepticism relative to the severity of marital abuse. She stated to police that it was her belief Pam was not a battered wife, but may have been struck from time to time.
Richards has adamantly denied any abusive interactions with his wife. He’s refuted at least portions of every episode of abuse allegedly described by Pam through others. “I have no history of mental illness or violence,” he writes from prison. Beyond denials, today he is reticent to unearth intimate details about their marriage. In a December 2009 parole interview, however, Richards appeared more forthcoming. “She was bipolar,” he said of his wife. Depression was another issue he cited. “She said some things about me to some very select people…who I thought I would never come into contact with.” During the interview, he partly attributed her attitude toward him to normal marital venting and the side effects of prescription drugs taken to treat a serious heart condition. “They were just ghosts in her mind,” he said of Pam’s statements.
Police were never able to factually substantiate any of these accusations through 911 calls, protective orders or other direct means. Other than a couple of instances of self-defense, Richards has exhibited no violent tendency in nearly two decades of incarceration.
Only when Richards testified in his own behalf during the mistrials were these allegations ever broached in the courtroom. (They were never introduced at his convicting trial.) In his closing argument, the county prosecutor alluded to Bill’s acknowledgment of physical contact between him and Pam. Without conceding any guilt, the deputy public defender challenged the prosecutor’s implication in a final plea to the jury.
“Battered woman. Man sitting at defendant’s seat. Often those things are connected without any analysis.”
In Patrick’s police interview the day after Pam’s death, he claimed secondhand knowledge of a life insurance policy Bill had allegedly taken out on his wife through his employer. Moreover, Bill was said to have unexpectedly upped it in the two or three weeks leading up to the crime.
“I did not have any life insurance on Pam,” Richards writes. Dangerous hobbies such as off-roading and sharpshooting, as well as a change in tax law applicable to his benefits package, prompted him to open an accidental death and dismemberment policy on himself in January 1993. It contained a 50-percent spousal payout of which he says he was unaware. “This was an attempt to look out for Pam on the chance I got hurt or killed.”
Police records indicate that homicide detectives unsuccessfully attempted to subject Richards to a polygraph examination the day after his wife’s murder. Postponing the exam until a later date, the administrator determined that Richards’ “emotional state” negated its usefulness. Richards committed to undergo the exam, however. “No problem, no problem. I’ll do whatever,” he promised. “You want to fingerprint me, polygraph me, I don’t care. I got nothing to hide. Anything you need. Anything.” Richards even granted permission to search his entire premises without a search warrant during this conversation.
Throughout his dealings with the homicide division, Richards cooperated at every stage of the investigation, but it’s apparent that he began to harbor misgivings as the interrogations continued. In a third interview on Aug. 30, 1993, detectives ratcheted up pressure for Richards to submit to a polygraph exam through repeated requests.
“We need to do that,” Detective Tom Bradford said. Richards replied that he was under a physician’s care, and he’d been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, Ativan, as well as a tranquilizer. In addition, Richards took pills twice daily to normalize a prolapsed heart valve that produced an accelerated heart rate. “On that day [of the exam], the thing is, at least 12 hours to 24 hours, we can’t have you taking tranquilizers…or anti-depressants,” said Detective Norm Parent, the case agent and lead detective on the homicide. After Richards explained that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and abstaining from his heart pills would cause erratic heartbeats, detectives insisted he consume only those meds at the time of testing. Parent failed to respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
“Like I said, Bill, we got a boss to deal with and we have to eliminate you,” Parent began.
“I totally understand,” Richards answered. “I’m just telling you, knowing me, my physical condition, I don’t know whether it’ll do much good.” He then reiterated his consistent compliance with every police request.
“We appreciate everything you have done, but again, we have a boss to deal with. My sergeant says, ‘Eliminate him.’ You know? Okay?”
When Richards failed the polygraph exam four days later, he was booked into sheriff’s custody.
BEFORE THE FALL
William Richards was born in Chicago in 1949. His father was an engineer with the Defense Department and his mother was a registered nurse who held a doctorate. Raised in a middle-class household the middle of three brothers, Richards displayed an early affinity for science. His family owned a modest cottage in the Michigan woodlands, where he developed a lifelong love of the outdoors. Understandably, Richards romanticizes that era.
“Muscle cars with big engines prowled the highways,” he writes. “Rock ‘n’ roll, free love were new to the world.”
Despite a proclivity to form black-and-white judgments, Richards is endowed with a supple intelligence and is highly analytical. He’s loquacious by nature. In fact, as part of his 2009 parole risk assessment, a licensed psychologist remarked that Richards “tended to relate in a somewhat detailed manner with excessive information but this may be consistent with the engineer-type mentality.” Over a 20-year career as a mechanical engineer, he worked for three companies. All the while, however, he handpicked equipment and tools in order to achieve the goal of eventually launching a small business as an engineering and fabrication contractor.
During Richards’ sophomore year at a now-defunct Midwestern college in 1969, he was introduced to Pam through a girlfriend. First drawn to her smile, there was an instant attraction. They wed after dating two years. Richards reminisces that her best quality was her generous heart. She was his best friend. As a couple, they belonged to two social circles: One group met for social get-togethers while the other engaged in outdoor activities. Fred Quaas, a mutual friend during a portion of those years, describes their bond. “You just liked them,” he recalls. “They were definitely a unit. They weren’t co-dependent, but they preferred to be with each other…They were the kind of people you could have in-depth conversations with.” Richards has stated that they were unable to have children.
The Richardses maintained an outdoorsy lifestyle. Monthly group campouts and shooting competitions were the norm. Ultimately, it was their joint dream to build a custom home in the country. They owned quads, all-terrain vehicles, dune buggies and four-wheel drives. Bill Richards belonged to a sportsman’s club approaching 20 years, serving on its board of directors and acting as an event chairman on competitive shoots. He was an avid gun collector and enthusiast as well. More of a recreational shooter, Pam Richards participated in a few events without much zeal for the competitive aspect. However, she was well versed in the use and function of firearms.
Behind closed doors, the couple led a secret life which was withheld from the majority of their acquaintances. Children of the ’60s, at the outset of their relationship they decided to quell temptation by patronizing swinger’s clubs and agreeing to an open relationship. “It’s not as uncommon as it sounds,” Richards confides. It did not seem to take place with any great regularity. On occasion these extramarital trysts occurred separately, but never without the other’s consent. According to Richards, they were always straightforward with each other regarding their liaisons. “It was more of a party-swapping thing,” Quaas recollects. “I never saw it as a negative part of who they were. It just wasn’t something I would choose to do.”
Within this construct, Pam saw George Patrick with her husband’s express permission. Pam even stayed overnight with Patrick at his parents’ residence a few times, according to comments Patrick made to authorities. On one of these sleepovers, Bill actually phoned the Patrick home to communicate an innocuous message to Pam that she needn’t pay a phone bill because he’d already paid it.
“One of the first things he told me was, ‘We had an open relationship,'” relates Hal Smith, Richards’ private defense attorney on the final trial. “He was not ashamed of it; he did not hide it. He wasn’t proud of it; it was just one more fact. That’s how Bill is wired.”
Of the challenges faced by law enforcement, few were more of a priority than establishing opportunity. Detective John Navarro was tasked with recreating Richards’ 44.8-mile drive home from his workplace at Schuler Manufacturing in Corona to Hesperia. Richards’ time card showed he clocked out at 11:03 p.m. Departing the parking lot in an unmarked car at 11:06 p.m, Navarro duplicated Richards’ normal route, traversing the Cajon Pass along I-15 and Route 138 before exiting onto dirt access roads. Traveling with the flow of traffic at approximately 75 mph, Navarro testified that he arrived in 41 minutes, or at 11:47 p.m. Deputy District Attorney Michael Risley, the lead prosecutor on every trial, contends that 75 mph may even be conservative. “In 1993, if you’re going 80 mph up the Cajon Pass, you’re getting passed,” Risley says. “That’s just reality. And that’s the wonderful thing about jurors: They get it.”
Richards’ first 911 call was received at 11:58 p.m. Lengthening an 11-minute window, the prosecution argued that the time span before Deputy Mark Nourse’s arrival at 12:38 a.m., as law enforcement’s first responder at the scene, afforded Richards an extra 40 minutes free of interference. It was calculated that he had a grand total of 51 minutes.
During the final interrogation, polygraph examiner Kathleen Cardwell pressed Richards on the issue.
“Listen, you told me, when we were talking, that you should leave by 2:00, 2:15 at the latest to get to work. Now if you could leave at 2:15…”
“Two o’clock. At 2:15 I have to speed like a bat out of hell.”
“But you can make it. You told me that.”
“I can make it. Yes, I can make it in 45 to 50 minutes if I’m flying like a bat out of hell. Driving normally, no.”
Homicide detectives didn’t report to the crime scene until after 3 a.m. At that stage, Lieutenant Hobart Gray made a decision not to enter the scene until daylight to prevent evidence contamination in the darkness. Before 3 a.m, Nourse was alone with Richards for a considerable time. Nourse’s time-of-death observations were not only the lynchpin in the People’s case, but they were also frequently used to illustrate Richards’ alleged lack of credibility.
After making contact with Bill, Nourse testified that upon initial inspection of the supine body, he rapidly checked for a pulse and determined that the victim was deceased. According to Nourse’s testimony, Bill advised him that Pam was “stone-cold dead. You don’t have to check on her. She’s been dead a long time. I know that because the battery is dead on the Toyota [motor home].” Nourse’s incident report indicated “the victim’s scalp and entire head of hair was completely covered in very fresh blood, almost to the point it looked as though her hair had been dyed with red dye.” Throughout the report blood is described as “bright red,” “wet,” “very damp,” “liquid” and “fresh.” In addition, he testified that blood in the hair had not begun to dry or mat, and blood pooled in nearby soil had just started to be absorbed.
Nourse testified that Pam’s wrist was pliant and her arm was limp. He also stated she exhibited no signs of rigor mortis or lividity. During the pretrial hearing, Nourse said he’d received police academy training in rigor mortis and lividy. Rigor mortis is a chemical reaction that causes the stiffening of joints and muscles and is undetectable until about a couple of hours after death. Fully developed rigidity occurs at about 12 hours. Lividity is the purplish-red discoloration of the skin due to internal settling of blood and heavy objects at the lowest portion of the body’s position. The pattern of lividity can shift by degrees until eight to 12 hours after death, when it becomes fixed.
“The victim did not appear to have been dead very long as she was not warm but she was not cold,” Nourse entered in his report. In testimony, Nourse noted that it was a very cold night.
Previously, as a rescue fire fighter in the Air Force, Nourse testified that he was designated as a triage instructor and EMT. Triage is the medical response to a catastrophic event where there are multiple injuries and/or deaths. In court, he was permitted to testify that he would have anecdotally placed Pam’s time of death in a category equivalent to someone who had died in his arms, per his military experience.
Risley, however, downplays the impact of Nourse’s time-of-death testimony versus the general significance of contradiction. “Mr. Richards came home, and he was trying to convince law enforcement that, ‘Golly gee, I got home from work, and my wife must’ve been dead for awhile ’cause she was cold.’ Nourse was like, ‘No, no, no. Wait a minute, she wasn’t that cold.’ That’s my interpretation. It was more to refute what Mr. Richards was telling law enforcement.”
Forensic pathology attempts to establish cause of death and the circumstances surrounding that death. As a forensic pathologist, county Chief Medical Examiner Frank Sheridan performed Pam Richards’ autopsy. In court he recited a savage litany of injuries to a victim measuring 5 feet 10 inches and weighing 126 pounds. Extensive defensive bruises and abrasions where found on her hands and forearms. Lacerations appeared on the lip, face, both ears and on the inner part of the right eye. Bruising was found on the lip, upper gum, torso, arms and legs. Abrasions were visible along the jaw line and down the neck. Some abrasions were postmortem, or inflicted after death. There was massive fracturing of the skull’s left side, also deemed to have occurred postmortem. Bruising and hemorrhages to the right side of the scalp had “every potential to be fatal.” However, due to severe hemorrhaging involving all layers of the neck, and fractures to either side of the hyoid bone (horseshoe-shaped bone in the neck above the larynx), Sheridan ruled Pam’s cause of death as both manual strangulation and blunt-force trauma.
There was no external or internal evidence of nonconsensual sex. Visual examination revealed pitting on Pam’s back not present on her front. It was concluded that these indentations were illustrative of the body’s positioning and caused by pebbles or rocks in the soil. Richards told police he believed that upon discovery of his wife’s body, it was lying facedown with a cinder block leaning against the head. “Science proves that when she died, she was lying on her back,” Risley says. “When we put on the testimony of the forensic pathologist to say this is what it is, they couldn’t contest it. They had no comeback.”
From the witness stand, Deputy Nourse claimed he grew suspicious of Bill’s behavior almost from the start. In fact, at one point he chose to record a portion of their conversation on audiotape, without Richards’ knowledge. “One minute he would be very calm, cool, collected, like he had rehearsed or was reading from a script,” he told the court. Nourse described wild mood swings, as Richards switched from sobbing and falling to the ground to volunteering blow-by-blow speculation about what transpired that night. “Very deliberate. Very precise.”
On Risley’s direct examination of Nourse, he asked whether he thought the body was “stone cold,” as previously ascribed to Richards’ perception of the body’s temperature. Echoing the incident report, he responded confidently in the negative. At least once in the first police interview, and reportedly to Nourse earlier at the scene, Richards stated that he first noticed Pam’s body from the porch because the moonlight reflected off her naked calves. Nourse testified that the night sky was “completely overcast” and there was “no moonlight at all.” Richards also told Nourse of a bloody stepping stone on a dark hillside that the patrolman testified he could not see.
When Nourse’s expertise to offer specialized medical testimony was challenged by Hal Smith, Risley affirmed his witness’ background. “I know what he is going to say and I know he is qualified,” he confirmed before San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Margaret Powers. Lastly, as Nourse restated pieces of Richards’ commentary, he quoted a remark about the removal of Pam’s jeans. They were found inside-out, slung over a gasoline container in front of the generator. Nourse testified that Richards stated they didn’t come off easy. “Trust me on this.”
As the homicide team labored to reconstruct details of that evening, incongruous elements at the crime scene eventually led investigators to surmise Richards had manipulated it. The prosecution argued that the defendant staged a false scenario of rape—victim’s nakedness and clothing discarded—to divert the focus away from himself. It was a potential motive Richards consistently puzzled over in the course of police interviews.
Inside the motor home on a short bench, police found two bloodstained pillows and bits of dirt and vegetation. A small space between the generator shed and a steep upslope was one obvious area of activity. Blood-soaked rocks, disturbed soil, an acrylic fingernail fragment, a lone canvas shoe and various puddles of blood were photographed there.
Daniel Gregonis played a key role as the county criminalist whose on-scene duties included collecting and documenting evidence for further analysis. There was consensus among the investigative team that the bleeding victim had been carried into the motor home. No blood trails connected the areas of activity. In Risley’s summation, the prosecutor unfurled a hypothetical sequence of events to make sense of the chaotic scene. Near the generator, it was the People’s position that Richards attacked and strangled his wife. He then carried her into the motor home, laid her down temporarily and subsequently carried her back outside. To cover up the initial strangulation, he finished her off by throwing bricks onto her head. Gregonis declined to be interviewed for this story, citing his employer’s nondisclosure policy.
When Nourse ordered Richards to stay out of the crime scene, he replied that he had already touched all the evidence trying to figure out what happened.
Authored in 2009 by the National Research Council, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States” was submitted to the U.S. Justice Department as an indispensible resource within the forensics community. Bloodstain pattern analysis is a forensic science employed to help interpret physical events at a crime scene. The guidebook contains a chapter devoted to this specialty. “Dried blood may be found at crime scenes, deposited either through pooling or via airborne transfer (spatter)…A stain on a garment, such as a shirt, might indicate contact between the person who wore the shirt and a bloody object, while tiny droplets of blood might suggest proximity to a violent event, such as a beating.”
A transfer-type stain is produced through contact. A transfer stain is from one source to another; a smear stain can be the result of a swipe through an existing blood source. Blood spatter is defined by blood traveling through space and is classified three ways: low-, medium- or high-energy. Dripping by gravity alone may produce low-energy spatter; stabs or blunt-force trauma with objects may produce medium-energy spatter; misting or tiny particles from a shotgun blast may produce high-energy spatter.
In the Richards case, Gregonis performed bloodstain pattern analysis on the clothing of both husband and wife. Gregonis’ handwritten notes indicate he analyzed Bill Richards’ shirt and pants on Aug. 19, 1993. A laboratory report completed by Gregonis on Oct. 14, 1993, included his interpretation of Richards’ attire. “The medium energy blood spatter patterns present on the right shoe (Item B-5a) and the pants (Item B-5b) indicates that these items were near an object impacting a bloody object. The pattern near the zipper of the pants indicates that the impact occurred to the front and right of the person wearing the pants.”
These early findings were instrumental in mounting a case against Richards. “At the beginning,” Bradford says, “one of the things that didn’t make sense, if I remember right, was that there was blood-spatter evidence on his clothing which was totally inconsistent with how he claimed that he found his wife and the way he claimed he moved or touched the body.”
Overall, Gregonis documented a total of three medium-energy blood patterns on Richards: one on a shoelace and two on the pants. In testimony, Gregonis opined that there were two separate directionalities of blood flight apparent on the pants, demonstrating two distinct medium-energy events. He found transfer-type staining on Bill Richards’ pants as well; it was concluded that the shirt showed solely transfer stains. Pam’s pants contained approximately 40 stains. Under direct exam, Risley asked Gregonis about Richards’ jeans vis-à-vis the dynamics of the crime scene. “I believe that they could have been worn by a person in close proximity to the medium impact stains.”
According to Richards, in the interim before law enforcement arrived on scene, he cradled his wife two or three times and drew a sleeping bag overtop her naked body up to her chin. At trial, Gregonis said that he expected more blood on the phone per Bradford’s retelling of Richards’ cradling account. To test the veracity of Richards’ cradling account, Gregonis performed a reconstruction experiment using a dummy. He simulated the victim’s head with a hollowed-out Styrofoam mannequin’s head, covered in latex and filled with a gelatin-type substance and one pint of human blood. Standing over the dummy and dressed in garments similar to Richards’, a cinder block was dropped on the head, and the experimenter proceeded to cradle the subject. Afterward, Gregonis expected to find more blood on Richards shirt to duplicate the experiment’s findings. The dripping pattern on the experimental pants’ inner thigh did not match Richards’. Initially, Gregonis anticipated that more blood would’ve been deposited on Richards’ pants if he was the perpetrator, but during the re-creation he learned that the cinder block acted as a shield.
More tests revealed that all the blood on Richards was Pam’s except two small stains, which could not be aged. Pam was identified as the possible donor of blood on Pam’s jeans, stepping stones, cinder block, sleeping bag and telephone. Bloodstains on other tested objects were consistent with Pam. Widespread DNA testing was not available in 1997.
Law enforcement’s on-scene tracking was pivotal in ruling out a third-party presence at the crime scene. Located in a remote desert, the area was sparsely populated. The immediate crime scene was combed for shoe impressions. Detective Parent fanned out at least 75 yards in every direction with four deputies to search the surrounding area for foot and tire tracks. The terrain varied from soft dirt to sand to rock. No broken vegetation or disruption of soil was found on the hillsides. Other than Nourse’s patrol unit, Pam’s Samurai and Bill’s pickup, no tire tracks belonging to another vehicle were sighted. Finally, Parent ascertained the respective tread patterns of footwear belonging to Nourse, Bill and Pam. No shoe mark was accounted for beyond the three.
“One item of evidence that I think was critical was there was zero evidence that anybody else was on the crime scene,” Risley reflects. “So, if there was somebody else that did it, they rented a helicopter, the helicopter hovered over the crime scene, and they rappelled onto the crime scene, and they did what they did to Pamela without leaving a shoe impression, and they got back into their helicopter and left. I know it sounds silly, but that’s what it is.”
Another county criminalist, Craig Ogino, studied fingernail scrapings taken from Pam. Trace evidence from both hands included soil, blood, a synthetic fiber, a dark blue possibly wool fiber, one dark hair, one light blonde hair, a small hair fragment and one white possibly cotton fiber. Ogino testified that all the evidence was categorized as historical, or likely picked up underneath anyone’s fingernails in the course of everyday life. No hair found on Pam was consistent with anyone other than the victim. However, Gregonis would videotape his extraction of a tuft of about 15 blue cotton fibers lodged in a cracked fingernail belonging to Pam. After Gregonis microscopically analyzed these fibers, he testified that they were “indistinguishable” from sample fibers excised from Richards’ work shirt, worn on the night of the murder.
Bite-mark evidence was never introduced in any trial until the last. However, an autopsy photo of the back of Pam’s right hand revealed a semicircular lesion between the thumb and index finger. Taken at an off-center angle, the low-quality image was marred by distortion. Forensic odontologists are dentists who collect and analyze dental evidence in criminal investigations. Typically, they undertake dental identifications or bite-mark comparisons. Dr. Norman Sperber, who’d previously testified in the high-profile murder trials of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, was retained by the prosecution. Sperber was recognized as a seminal leader in his field. In studying Pam’s autopsy photo, he concluded the injury was indeed a human bite mark. When he created an overlay—dots corresponding to biting edges—of Richards’ dentition to compare against the photo, he found general conformity between the two. Furthermore, Sperber testified that there was a dental abnormality in the bite-mark photo consistent with Richards’ under-erupted canine tooth. While Sperber noted that no scholarship existed on the subject, based on empirical information he guesstimated that Richards shared this abnormality with one or two percent of the population.
As Parent inventoried the contents of Pam’s purse into evidence, he uncovered two items the prosecutor would later seize upon to incriminate Richards. One was a business card. On June 18, 1993, Pam obtained a preliminary consultation from a divorce lawyer. Police records indicate she made only one visit after bouncing a check for the service. The purse also contained a handwritten note from Bill to Pam, outlining a division of marital assets. It was dated July 14, 1993.
“I, William Richards, relinquish all claim to joint properties between myself and my wife Pamela Richards, except for my tools, guns, Warrior and fifty percent of the equity in the land we own in Summit Valley. This includes profit sharing earned while we were together.” This is a verbatim transcript of what Parent read aloud from the witness stand.
Further amplifying the message that divorce was imminent, Risley questioned Patrick about the nature of his relationship with Pam. In turn, the prosecution witness told the jury that Pam planned to move in with him. He stated he loved her very much. After nearly a year of friendship, Patrick said the relationship became sexual some months before her death and persevered in that degree of intimacy until the end. Conversely, Richards’ remarks to police suggest he was irked by his wife’s ongoing contact with Patrick because it broke the longstanding habit of a brief fling with an outside partner.
Of the motives Risley presented, perhaps none was as impactful as the assertion that financial hardship was driving a wedge between husband and wife. By Richards’ own admission, they were fighting “like cats and dogs.” He claimed the arguments were not daily occurrences, but off and on. “Our biggest problems were money,” he told police, “and we argued over money.”
Creditors often phoned him at work. Behind his back, his wife borrowed thousands from his coworker and a neighbor. At least six months before the murder, Pam was laid off her full-time job as a loan processor at an agricultural machinery dealer. “That’s when we really started hurting,” Richards admitted to investigators. Soon Pam began waitressing at the Olive Garden, but part-time income failed to replace what had been lost. Normally, Pam handled the bills. But when her husband learned that she’d allowed his pickup’s car insurance to lapse due to delinquent payment—tacking on an additional $11,000 to an initial $14,000 loan which was almost paid off—he summarily took control of the finances. The day before Pam’s murder, an agent appeared on the Richardses’ property with a repossession order for the Ford Ranger. After explaining the purpose for his visit, Richards phoned the finance company and struck a temporary deal to maintain possession of the vehicle. According to the repossessor’s testimony, Richards was overheard saying he’d rather burn the truck to the ground than relinquish it to the lender.
In mid-June 1993, Richards closed the couple’s joint bank account and opened an individual one solely in his name. The teller was given explicit instructions to bar his wife’s access to it. In court, the teller testified that Bill felt his wife was irresponsible with money. Additionally, Richards allegedly stated that he’d grown weary of supporting his wife and the man with whom she was having an affair. From now on, he said, he’d only support himself.
“Trace time. There’s a punch clock when I left down there…Drive it. See how long it takes to get to my property. Look at the tires on my truck. They’re bald. You can see I wasn’t breaking any speed records. And you’ll get a time of death I’m sure, and you’ll see it’s nowhere near close.”
These were Richards’ words to Bradford when confronted with what authorities insisted was an ample window of opportunity. Throughout the interrogations, Richards stated that his drive home usually took about an hour traveling 65 mph most of the way. “The CHiPs are a little nasty on that highway so you can’t speed too much,” he said. The posted speed limit in 1993 was 55 mph. Crime scene photos show that in addition to a large chest full of ice, Richards drove home with at least five wooden pallets loaded into the pickup’s bed.
Two investigators assigned to Richards’ defense performed pacing exercises to gauge the accuracy of law enforcement’s drive re-creation. Maintaining 75 mph, Navarro clocked the one-way trip at 41 minutes. Bill Pope, a contracted investigator for the public defender’s office, drove the route at 65 mph in September 1993. During daylight hours along the reverse route, it took 52 minutes. Adding this estimate to a departure time of 11:06 p.m., Richards would’ve pulled onto his property at approximately 11:58 p.m. This is the exact minute he first dialed 911, after he’d already spoken to Patrick. Pope undertook a second exercise in 1994. Traveling with the speed of traffic—averaging about 65 mph to 70 mph along the work-to-home route—he again testified it took 52 minutes. The last trial featured three new estimates by a private investigator hired by the defense. Utilizing cruise control in 1997, 60 mph took 52 minutes, 65 mph took 48 minutes and 70 mph took 44 minutes.
At the preliminary hearing in September 1993, Navarro testified his velocity was 75 mph. During the first jury trial in 1994, he testified it was between 65 mph and 75 mph. The third trial, he stated he traveled at 75 mph. On June 16, 1997, Navarro testified for the final time. He affirmed that he’d driven with the flow of motorists.
“And, what would those speeds have varied, do you know?” the prosecutor asked.
“They varied anywhere from sixty, sixty-five, seventy miles an hour.”
When confronted with the discrepancies between testimonies on cross examination, Navarro chalked it up to the passage of time. “It’s been awhile,” he said. Each time on the witness stand, however, the elapsed time never deviated from 41 minutes.
In closing argument, Richards’ deputy public defender on all three mistrials, Michael Kennedy, pointed out that Navarro’s re-creation failed to account for the time his defendant spent stopped en route, loading his gun, exiting his vehicle and locking his hubs. Additionally, the shift mechanic who relieved Richards testified that he did not observe Richards leave work in any rush that evening. Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this story.
Cathy Hopkins, an ordained minister and register nurse, housed Richards in the days following the murder, before his arrest. She is the mother of Fred Quaas. Bill and Pam Richards were holiday guests in the home of mother and son before the crime. Both have staunchly advocated for Richards’ innocence since. When he didn’t return from his last police interview, Hopkins called the sheriff’s station. After one of the investigating officers informed her of the arrest, she says he mentioned that they were developing a theory that Richards had left his post at the manufacturing plant mid-shift.
“They made up this whole cock-and-bull story that he could’ve snuck home at 75 mph, killed Pam and drove 75 mph back in this like hour-and-a-half period that he couldn’t account for anyone seeing him,” Quaas says. “This is really important to me because they said, at the time when they arrested him, that she died at like 8:30. I’ve never forgotten that to this day…I know they’re full of crap and I know they know when she died.” Between the arrest and the preliminary hearing, however, Quaas alleges that authorities pieced together that Richards was in fact seen by coworkers for all but 15 minutes. “So, oops, that didn’t work…They concocted this whole thing. Now he comes home, somehow gets in a rage and he kills her in 10 minutes. There’s only like a 10-minute window.”
Dr. Irving Root served as the defense’s pathologist in each trial except the last. When a body dies, he testified, it becomes limp and the skin takes on the texture of a wet dish cloth. As a result, it would’ve taken time to unclothe a tight pair of jeans.
Given the bare-bones living conditions which existed on the property, the Richardses were not the beneficiaries of electricity supplied through a city utility. The motor home ran on two deep-cell batteries. The only light source in the storage shack was a battery-powered fluorescent light. Whenever more juice than 12 volts was required—to vacuum, watch television or otherwise—the 110-volt generator was utilized. Consequently, it needed to be filled with oil nightly because it was so old it burned oil rapidly. In the immediate vicinity of the generator shed, police would designate two areas of activity. Beside the generator shed were blood-soaked rocks, several bloodstains on the ground and other aforementioned items. Directly facing the generator, a large splotch where oil had seeped into the dirt was present, as well as Pam’s discarded jeans.
Shortly after he discovered his wife’s dead body, Richards told detectives that he walked to the motor home when the phone rang and flipped the light switch. Despite a four-to-six-hour battery life, the batteries were dead. Richards answered the phone and Patrick asked for Pam. Without exhibiting signs that he was winded or gasping, Richards replied that she was dead. He stated that she’d fallen off the porch, hit her head on a rock and her eye was hanging out of its socket. After Patrick expressed disbelief, Richards asked him what he should do. Patrick instructed Richards to call 911. Richards hung up and dialed 911 at 11:58 p.m. He also told the 911 operator that Pam had fallen and accidentally struck her head. When the first 911 call terminated, he briefly returned to his wife, draped a sleeping bag over her naked body and began staring at a nearby cinderblock, wondering how it had arrived at its current location. Part of a makeshift step, Richards told detectives the block should’ve been stacked at the foot of the motor home’s entrance.
Slowly it began to dawn on him that a falling scenario was implausible given the catastrophic head injury and out-of-place details. At 12:06 a.m., he placed the second 911 call. Afterward, he retrieved a four-cell Maglite flashlight with a focusable beam. Richards proceeded toward the generator to illuminate the darkness. Once there, he said he noticed obvious signs—spilled oil, bloodstains, discarded pants—that things were amiss. Opting not to power on the generator, he instead turned back, returned to his wife and cradled her again. Sitting down with her for several minutes, he rose to call 911 a third time at 12:33 a.m. “Where the fuck are you?” he pleaded to the operator. A few minutes later, Richards spotted Nourse’s headlights on the roadway below.
“I figure things out for a living,” Richards would later testify. “I look at details and I’m very good at it.” In Nourse’s transcript, as well as throughout police interviews, he repeatedly extrapolated facts in attempts to reconstruct the manner in which his wife had been slain. Authorities listened attentively. Before the witness stand, Kennedy inquired why Richards had volunteered theories to police. The answer was seemingly guileless. “I talk a lot, try to be helpful.” He vehemently denies Nourse’s testimony that he was coolly laying out scenarios at the crime scene. Rather, he contends he was striving to maintain composure and apply logic to better assist detectives.
The day after the murder, Richards posited to investigators that Pam had been ambushed as she crouched near the generator. “My guess, and I’m no detective, but my guess is, from the oil being laid open was she was in the process of filling oil or something when she, whatever, engaged combat, because the oil [bottle] was knocked over and the top was off. Now I’m guessing, I didn’t look that closely.”
Less than two days after the murder, Quaas traveled to the crime scene to collect firearms because authorities had warned Richards not to leave guns unattended on the property. Quaas noticed a telltale clue that Richards would relate to police in a subsequent interview. The generator’s crankcase was filled with oil. “And he [Quaas] just started up the generator…which was my question. ‘Had it been running and run out of fuel or not?’ Apparently not, because he started it up and it ran, so she never started it. But the crankcase was closed. He said the cap for the oil thing was sitting on top of the motor, which is where she put it when she was refilling it. So apparently, she had filled the oil, closed the crankcase and was in the process of refilling the squeeze bottle when she was attacked.”
The afternoon of Aug. 10, 1993, Pam’s general manager at the Olive Garden phoned her and left a message on her machine, asking if she was available to cover a night shift. At 5:30 p.m., Pam returned his call but there was no longer a need.
Generator power was necessary to vacuum the motor home. The night of the murder, Pam phoned her brother between 7:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. according to his testimony. She wished him a happy birthday in a normal tone of voice. In his opening remarks, Smith told the jury that during this call Pam told her brother she was preparing to vacuum. When police arrived, the vacuum cleaner was plugged in. Normally it would’ve been kept in the storage shed. A pile of shoes was also pushed aside, clearing a carpeted path.
Inside the short bed of Pam’s Suzuki Samurai sat a green plastic trash bag full of dirty laundry. Her closed purse and a pair of sunglasses were placed on the passenger seat.
“Was it normal for her to keep her purse in the Suzuki?” Bradford asked during an interrogation.
“Only if she was going somewhere,” said Richards. “The fact that there is dirty laundry in the back of the Suzuki means she was about to go into town and do laundry after she vacuumed.” None of the investigators touched the generator or the Samurai’s hood to help determine whether either had been in recent operation due to warmth.
Moments before 10 p.m. on August 10, Quaas phoned the Richardses to cancel a preplanned daytrip with Bill because he unexpectedly had to work. He was positive of the time, he testified, because the call was made as credits for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” rolled on his TV. After it rang a few times, he heard two successive clicks before the dial tone sounded. Immediately, he placed a second call but the line rang unanswered at least 15 times before he gave up. Quaas says he phoned them regularly, and either Bill or Pam were in the habit of picking up their phone if they were home. “Why didn’t it get picked up?” he wondered in court. “I mean somebody was home.”
According to Quaas, Pam’s night vision was poor. Bill, Pam and he frequently camped overnight in the desert on shooting excursions. When Pam needed to urinate, Quaas testified that Bill had to lead her by the hand on dark walks away from the campsite.
Smith lampooned the prosecution’s timeline in his opening statement. “It gets dark around 8:00 or 8:30 in August, so I guess what they are saying to you is Pamela Richards sat up there in the dark for four hours waiting for her husband to come home and murder her.”
In a state of agitation, dogs can be heard barking loudly on Nourse’s audiotape. The Richardses owned four unleashed watchdogs, which had free range throughout the acreage. The prosecution suggested that guard dogs failed to alert or defend their master against her assailant because they were already well acquainted with Bill Richards. But Richards shared doubts with detectives regarding their protective instincts. He recounted a day when a stranger trespassed onto the property and knocked at the motor home door. A lineman from the utility company introduced himself.
“And here’s both of my big dogs. One leaning up against each side of his leg like they were his fucking dogs. I’m thinking, ‘What kind of dogs are you?’…I was very disappointed in the fact that the dogs didn’t protect her…The dogs barked constantly.” On the other hand, when Nourse was asked in testimony how the dogs reacted to his presence, he offered a different perspective. “Growled, snarled, snapped their teeth. Basically, they didn’t want me anywhere around that place.”
Over the course of the night in question and into daylight hours, dogs roamed in and out of the unsecure crime scene. Nourse’s incident report indicates he made several unsuccessful attempts to shoo the animals away. Ultimately, he decided it was more detrimental to the crime scene’s integrity to violate it by pursuit of the pets.
“I saw the dogs sniffing around the body on several different occasions and each time they were yelled at to chase them off…But, upon re-examination of the body with Homicide when they arrived on scene there were paw marks around the head area where the dogs had been digging and had just about entirely covered the face and head area with dirt.”
Dogs had partially buried the victim’s head.
Parent contemplated shooting the dogs at the scene, but decided against that expedient. “I don’t think there was any way to secure the area to prevent animal activity,” Bradford says. “They lived out in the middle of nowhere.” Risley argues that other than corralling the dogs to the best of authorities’ abilities, there was little recourse. “What more can you do? I would challenge someone to say what would they have done.”
Two crime scene photos taken in the light of day, however, show a large tan dog plainly visible. It is napping mere feet from the victim’s body. “Not locking down the crime scene is unconscionable in this case,” says Alex Simpson, one of Richards’ Innocence Project attorneys.
Crime scene manipulation was a major factor in defining the first-degree murder charge. Kennedy declared that the prosecution’s theories of manipulation were bogus excuses for the deliberation and premeditation necessitated by the charge. They also doubled as handy explanations for inexplicable elements of the crime scene, he told the jury.
Gregonis testified that the crime scene’s circumstances aroused suspicion of sexual assault. In fact, while on scene he collected swabs and other samples for a rape kit. Detectives refused to divulge whether Pam had been raped in their interrogations of Richards. “Whether you guys will tell me it’s sexual or not, somebody tore her pants off,” said Richards. “You guys don’t have to tell me that’s what happened or not, but in my mind that’s what I see.” Law enforcement and Richards used identical criteria as a speculative rationale. Furthermore, Kennedy was reluctant to eliminate rape as a motive simply because the rape kit came back with a negative result. “How do you know that there wasn’t some sexual assault that was interrupted? What you do perhaps know is that there wasn’t anything detectably consummated. There is a big, big difference between those two.”
Nourse told the jury that Richards said Pam’s jeans didn’t come off easy. “Trust me on this” was Nourse’s quote. Richards’ complete statement excerpted from a police transcript is as follows.
“She had this, she had to squeeze into those jeans this morning, cause [sic] she’s put weight on. Those jeans couldn’t come off easy trust me. She didn’t loose [sic] them back there. Jesus Christ, it’s bad enough thinking she fell, but there’s blood…”
Due to the lack of connective blood trails between areas of activity and the overall complexity of the scene, Parent deduced that Richards had carried his wife into their motor home. Gregonis theorized that the struggle began near the generator or close by the Suzuki—two areas at least 56 feet apart based on Parent’s crime scene description report—during the first trial. In summation, Kennedy openly wondered how a 6-foot-2-inch man negotiated a narrow doorway approximately 22 inches wide and 69 inches high while transporting a 5-foot-10-inch woman. Parent also testified that the vacuum cleaner’s handle was not fingerprinted despite its probable movement when the body was supposedly carried inside the motor home. Investigators did not fingerprint any portion of the camper’s interior.
Because indentations from sand and pebbles appeared only on the victim’s back, Sheridan didn’t believe Pam’s front came into contact with the desert floor. Risley contrasted this opinion with Richards’ account of discovering his wife facedown. Inches from where the body came to rest, there was a sizeable patch of dead grass, bloody cinder block and heavy-gauge-steel fencing material lying flat on the ground. Throughout Richards’ interrogations he confessed uncertainty about how he’d precisely touched and cradled the body. Simpson isn’t convinced that Richards had lucidity about the body’s position upon arrival, either. “In terms of the district attorney making a lot of hay out of the position of the body, I just think that’s a closed box. I don’t know that any of us can get back to how she was positioned.”
In testimony, Nourse represented to the jury that Richards had told him he’d observed a bloody stepping stone down a dark hillside angled at about 45 degrees, without the aid of a flashlight. “It was down the side of the mountain so I couldn’t see it,” Nourse said. “I don’t know how he saw it.” Unfortunately, Nourse’s audio recording does not include this snippet of Richards’ dialogue. On a small downgrade, this placarded stepping stone was located 7 feet 3 inches northeast of the victim according to Parent’s police report. On audiotape, Richards told Bradford and Parent he noticed the stepping stone with the benefit of Pam’s flashlight upon exiting the motor home. Later, in court Richards described it as a three-cell, large beam flashlight.
Simpson believes that law enforcement zeroed in on Richards at the earliest stage. “The fact that they’re already making comments or reports that Bill was robotic after they found him shows that they’re already, hours after the event, after they first make contact, that they think he’s done it.”
“In hindsight,” Richards writes, “I wouldn’t have said a word to the police. I tried to be helpful and they twisted everything.”
With other means available, including an arsenal of guns on hand, Smith argued it was far more likely that Richards would’ve murdered his wife differently. Risley disagrees. “Who knows? Again, Bill Richards, calculated guy. ‘That’s too easy. If someone shoots her, all they have to do is go into my shed and find all the guns.'” Quaas’ opinion is more definitive.
“He’s a very smart man,” he says of Richards. “If he did do it, we wouldn’t be here. In the theoretical, if he had done it, he would’ve done a better job.”
The first 911 call was made at 11:58 p.m., but the call was unanswered until 12:02 a.m. In the meantime, audio was recorded. Richards was heard to say in an anxious tone of voice, “Oh, come on, someone…” before the operator responded on the other end. Kennedy argued there was no way Richards had any awareness of this technicality. When Patrick called, Richards also testified that he had no incentive to answer the phone if his intent was to conceal his presence at home. To attract the patrolman’s attention on the roadway, Richards flashed his headlights from his small plateau’s elevated perch. Once on scene, Nourse stated that it took considerable coaxing to keep Richards away from his wife. He pleaded to stay by her side and hold her. In court, Smith remarked that covering his wife’s body with a sleeping bag to shield her nakedness from police was an act inconsistent with murder. In the psych evaluation as part of his 2009 parole review, the interviewer documented that Richards did not exhibit conning or manipulative traits.
Gregory Randolph was employed as San Bernardino County’s deputy coroner on Aug. 11, 1993. Forty minutes after midnight, Randolph was contacted by the dispatch center and advised of Pam Richards’ death. At the homicide team’s directive, however, the deputy coroner testified he didn’t respond to the scene until about 10 a.m. Daylight revealed a decedent in advanced stages of rigor mortis; the window to document fresh details had shut forever. Generally, Randolph’s preference was to immediately arrive at crime scenes to make time-of-death observations. However, his superior and the pathologist who performed Pam’s autopsy, Frank Sheridan, regarded time of death as a “fruitless search.” At the Richards scene, Randolph simply took possession of the body after the homicide team processed the scene. A coroner’s duty is to perform an independent investigation, apart from law enforcement.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Griffith Thomas was retained by the defense on the final trial alone. Griffith characterized the nine-hour gap between Randolph’s notification and dispatch to the crime scene as “outrageously wrong.” He testified that time-of-death determinations are approximated by rigor mortis, lividity and core body temperature. Griffith stated that liver temp was the best method to assess the body’s rate of postmortem cooling. It required an incision which did not cause much bodily disturbance. At the time, taking core body temps at crime scenes was standard practice in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Richards’ blood-spatter expert, Dean Gialamas, also testified that L.A. County’s coroner’s investigation report form included a box for liver temp.
Navarro confessed during the preliminary hearing that despite his seven years of participation in homicide investigations, he had never heard of taking body temps for time-of-death estimation.
Absent expert testimony, Nourse’s time-of-death observations acquired exponential weight. He testified he had a working knowledge of meteorology because he was a pilot. While he conceded that he wasn’t aware how moonlight was shining 30 minutes before his arrival, he did witness slow-moving clouds. Nourse told jurors he saw a “completely overcast” sky with “no moonlight at all.” On the other hand, his incident report years earlier tended to stray from absolutes.
“When I arrived on scene there was very little moonlight if any,” Nourse wrote, “as the sky was very cloudy and overcast.”
According to NASA’s historical table of lunar phases, Aug. 11, 1993, was the first day of the moon’s first-quarter phase. During this phase, the moon’s right half is illuminated. On August 10, the area’s newspaper of record, Victorville’s The Daily Press, included a weather outlook for the High Desert, which encompasses Hesperia. “Mainly clear tonight” was the forecast. A handful of crime scene photos snapped shortly before sun-up show wispy clouds in patches.
The newspaper’s high-low temperature estimates for August 10 were 100/67. The next day’s estimates were 97/67. Richards testified that the air temperature was about 80 degrees. He also said Pam’s body felt cool to the touch, not ice cold. “It was a very cool evening, very cold evening,” Nourse testified. “If she had been dead for a long time like he stated, she definitely would have been cold.”
In the Air Force or as a peace officer, he had responded to “easily over 20” incidents like aircraft crashes, fires and drownings, where a person turned out to be dead. Based on observations about freshness of blood, rigor mortis, lividity and body temp, Nourse placed Pam in the same category as someone who had died in his arms. “She felt nearly normal to the touch. She felt like a normal body temperature in the sense that if she had moaned or sat up, leaving alone her injuries for the moment but just the skin touch, I would not have been surprised.”
On cross exam, Kennedy vigorously challenged Nourse’s expertise to form judgments on time of death. Nourse admitted he had no formal knowledge about the cooling rate of a dead body. Root testified that there is substantial variability in how long blood will appear red and liquid in the open air depending on such factors such as temperature, amount of blood, absorbency of surface, etc. Excepting on-the-job experience, Nourse testified he had no knowledge relative to time frames for blood degeneration. “I have no formal training on how long it takes blood to dry,” he said. Instead, he stated he had formal training on treating injuries. “I have practical experience with dealing with injuries of all types that have occurred from recent to much time past, and seeing blood how it’s dried, coagulated, turned colors, et cetera.” When asked about maximum ranges of time before lividity and rigor mortis are observable per scientific literature, Nourse replied that these were variable questions. Following the mistrials, Smith again questioned Nourse’s credentials during the last trial in a hearing outside the jury’s presence.
“Do you have any training having to do with people who are dead, as far as a determination when they died,” Smith asked.
“Yes, sir, I do.”
Despite the fact that he’d examined the victim by peeling a corner of the sleeping bag off a supine body, Nourse noted in testimony and his incident report that there were no signs of lividity present. Root noted in his summary report that unless the observer was properly trained in examining for rigor mortis, a failure to find evidence of its presence in the early stages after death was not helpful.
“Were you solely an E.M.T. in the military?” Risley asked Nourse during the first trial.
“Yes,” Nourse replied.
A DD-214 is a certificate of military service issued upon discharge. Nourse’s DD-214 form cites two specialties: strategic aircraft maintenance technician (2 years, 11 months) and fire protection specialist (3 years, 2 months). EMT designation does not appear on this report. Ostensibly, his medical education consisted of a four-week Fire Rescueman Course and a weeklong Emergency Care of the Sick and Injured course. Listed among miscellaneous other military courses is an eight-week Fire Protection Specialist Course.
“Every murder case that you work,” says Bradford, “you have no idea. They’re all whodunits until you follow what clues or what information you’re led to. So we follow whatever is there.”
Both inconsistencies and consistencies catalyzed Nourse’s suspicions. Richards’ claims of moonlight on a pitch-black evening and seemingly firsthand accounts of an attack constituted two such examples of Nourse’s ambivalence. Yet throughout police interviews Richards lamented his fuzzy memory. No less than four times, Richards expressed confusion about a strict sequence of the previous night’s events during his interrogation on Aug. 11, 1993. He describes his state of shock to police on August 30. “At the time, it was a very funny feeling because I was numb. It’s like I hurt, but I couldn’t feel the pain. I don’t know how to describe it.”
Awake well in excess of 24 hours, and a few hours removed from the discovery of his wife’s mutilated body, Richards told detectives he’d first seen his wife’s legs “shining in the moonlight, more or less.” Later in the interview, he recounts the moment. “I had the fluorescent light on in the building, which had a little bit of light coming out, ’cause I could see her legs kinda shined. I saw the backs of her legs.” The aid of fluorescent light is referenced by Richards at least twice more in police tapes.
“Was there any moonlight at all that night?” Bradford asked Richards on August 30.
“Shit, I don’t remember. I think there was. Yeah, I think there was a fair amount. She was laying down in the shadow. That’s why I didn’t see her. It seems to me I didn’t have too much trouble seeing her once I got down there.”
Unless the Richardses were home, all firearms were padlocked in the storage shed because the motor home’s door didn’t properly lock. The motor home had been robbed several times in the past. A nightly ritual, Richards was accustomed to transferring a .357-caliber handgun from the shed to the motor home for protection. The night before Pam’s killing, Richards neglected to move the gun before he went to sleep. In police interviews he said he was overtired and mad at his wife, so he went straight to bed. Later, as he scanned bloody pillows inside the motor home, his heart sank. His first thought was that she had dashed in to retrieve the weapon, but it wasn’t there. Bradford would share Richards’ fear at trial. Why Richards would voluntarily self-incriminate, unless he was naively aiding in the murder investigation, was never explained.
“We just began this investigation,” Bradford told Richards on August 11. “A homicide investigation is a long, detailed investigation. And just from the onset right here, from the information thus far, at least at this point in the case you may be responsible for her death.”
“If you want to focus on me, I don’t care,” replied Richards. “I didn’t do it. Don’t stop looking, is what I’m saying. Throw me in jail, just don’t stop looking.”
Police tapes reveal that Richards referred to his wife’s body as “stone cold” once. In the course of these recordings, he referred to the motor home’s drained battery three times—twice as “stone dead” and once as “stone cold.”
“The battery was dead when I got home,” Richards told detectives on August 17. “It was stone cold.”
In court, Richards testified that “stone” anything was a holdover term from his adolescence, slang from the hippie era. The prosecution was told that the expressions “stone cold” or “dead as a doornail” were comparable and likewise meaningless.
According to a defense investigator’s report, a homicide detective visited a neighbor of the Richardses two or three days after the murder. The neighbor allegedly told the investigator that because his opinion of Bill Richards was favorable, the policeman appeared disinclined to waste his time any further. On August 17, Navarro told Pam’s social worker that, in spite of several interviews, motive was still a mystery to police. “We’re at a point now where we really feel there’s more than meets the eye,” he told her. A detective, likely Parent, told an Olive Garden cook on August 25 that everyone who’d taken a polygraph had passed, and the police investigation was now at a standstill. Parent told Richards on August 30 that rumors of marital discord were motivating suspicions.
Case agent Parent generated a request form on Oct. 24, 1994, and delivered it to his department’s Scientific Investigation Division. In it, he ordered a comparison of Patrick’s blood to the crime scene’s known samples. Blood from Patrick was drawn the same day. The date also coincided with the commencement of Richards’ second trial. Fifty-six days after the first trial ended in a hung jury and 14 months after the original crime, this blood work was requested ASAP.
In the three years that the Richardses resided there, Pam told her husband that on four or five occasions she had an eerie sense that she was being watched as she filled the generator’s oil at home alone. This happened nowhere else on the property. Richards told law enforcement he searched high and low in the surrounding hills with his dogs, but failed to find so much as a boot print. He said these strange occurrences helped shape his nascent speculations in the wake of Pam’s attack.
The day following the murder, Bradford asked Richards to remove his bloodstained work shirt so his upper body could be inspected. Other than a tiny scab on Richards’ elbow, there were no marks or visible wounds anywhere on his chest, arms, back or torso. Navarro later repeated this exercise on Pedro Galvan, a caretaker of at least two ranches in the vicinity, with the same negative outcome. Galvan testified he was told the murderer probably had scratches on his body.
Once police questioning ended on August 11, Hopkins came to pick up Richards at the sheriff’s station. “At one point,” she recalls, “they told Bill they wanted his clothing, so they took him away. The other policeman who stayed in the room with me immediately started trying to convince me that Bill was guilty. ‘You must be very careful. Things may not be what they seem.’ It was scare-tactic language…So I took Bill home with me to my house. Basically I stripped him down to his shorts and put him to bed. There was not a mark on him. After I had been to the property and saw the extent of the struggle, it further locked into my mind that there is no way that he did this. Whoever killed her could not have come out of that unmarked.”
Galvan lived about an eighth of a mile from the roadway that fronted the Richards residence. He told Navarro that he watched a compact red sports car, similar to a Mazda RX-7, drive by at 7 p.m. on Aug. 10, 1993. That night, he claimed he heard dogs barking from the Richards home at about 10 p.m., but didn’t think twice about it because it was extremely common. Galvan testified outside the jury’s presence that he’d seen the same vehicle three or four times in the month prior to the murder, but not once since. On one occasion, he told police he flagged down the suspicious car and asked the single occupant—a white male with long hair between 25 and 32 years of age—whether he was lost. The driver allegedly replied he was just looking around before he drove away. At the time Galvan jotted down the license plate number, but misplaced the slip of paper soon thereafter. Richards claims that Galvan was blocked from testifying about the sports car. Galvan’s limited testimony about scratch marks was included in the first mistrial. He was not summoned to the witness stand in the last trial.
Another neighbor interviewed by police indicated she had seen an unidentified red auto, “maybe an old Vega-type car,” parked in the area during the weeks leading up to the murder. A male prowler was observed staring at passing motorists. She promptly phoned the sheriff’s department to file a police report. Again, she wrote down a license plate number. “There’s a report,” she informed the detective.
Risley emphasized that there was no proof of a third party on the property in each trial. Other than Nourse’s patrol car, Pam’s Samurai and Bill’s Ranger, Parent did not identify any other tire tread marks up the long driveway leading to the plateau. After tracking the immediate crime scene, Parent and his team radiated out into the surrounding hillsides along a 100-yard perimeter. Outside the immediate crime scene, Parent saw no disturbances in soil or vegetation. Here, he did not find shoe prints to prove someone came down from the hillsides. In the entire search area, he discovered no shoe impressions belonging to unknown persons.
“Is it your testimony that,” Risley asked Parent at the preliminary hearing, “based upon everything we have talked about thus far, you have accounted for all the vehicles that came on that property?”
“And you have accounted for all the shoe prints that came on the property?” Risley proceeded.
When Kennedy cross examined Parent, however, a revelatory set of circumstances emerged. Two of Nourse’s superior officers reported to the scene before homicide detectives arrived. One was Sergeant McCarville, who Nourse testified was the on-duty watch commander. As McCarville ascended the upgrade toward the plateau, his patrol unit spun its tires before slipping into a ditch. Nourse phoned his wife, who then drove onto the premises in a civilian Jeep. Nourse subsequently towed the immobilized patrol unit out of the ditch with his private four-wheel drive. While it was within Parent’s survey area, he did not identify any corresponding tire tracks for either vehicle in his search. In fact, he was oblivious to the event entirely.
“So you don’t know anything about a patrol car falling in a ditch and a Jeep pulling it out?” Kennedy pressed.
“Well, if that happened, you would have noticed those tire tracks, wouldn’t you?”
“If that would have happened, I would think so.”
The day before Pam’s murder, a repossession agent climbed the driveway to the plateau’s edge in his red dually truck. Again, these tire tracks were not accounted for by Parent. Nourse acknowledged he “had to punch it and go all out” to ascend the driveway, kicking up rocks and dirt along the way. Furthermore, Quaas says he rented a little tractor two weeks before the murder. As a favor to Pam, he graded her driveway with it. He says it dug tracks everywhere into the soil. No tractor marks were referenced in the testimony. Days after the crime, when Quaas returned to the residence, he claims his old footsteps were still detectable. “I could find my own shoeprints up there after they had mauled the scene,” he says. Richards testified that he had seen dirt bikers riding in nearby hilly terrain three to five days before the crime, but Parent did not testify to corresponding tracks despite months without rainfall.
From the driveway down to the roadside archway just inside the police staging area, Parent said he looked for shoe impressions. Still, he recognized that foot tracks may have been obliterated where tires had rolled over them.
“There’s an old line that we sometimes use,” says Jan Stiglitz, another of Richards’ Innocence Project attorneys. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
Parent told Kennedy at the preliminary hearing that he did not know Pam’s shoe size nor the size of her feet. Instead, he visually reckoned each person’s tread patterns. The soles of Richards’ shoes were nearly worn smooth. Because Pam’s feet were shoeless, her husband identified her normal footwear as white canvas shoes. Both were found close to the generator, each lost in one of two respective areas of activity. Three individual shoeprints on the entire plateau were matched to Pam. One was at the foot of her Samurai’s driver’s side door; another was sunk into the oily stain facing the generator; the last was at the generator’s side near signs of a blood-shedding event. A single shoe impression—between two parked cars and outside the crime scene’s obvious areas of activity—was associated with Bill Richards. Kennedy pointed out that there were no marks of varying depth between activity areas to support the carrying scenario formulated by the prosecution. Moreover, the deputy public defender argued it was equally probable that the murderer wore shoes similar to Richards’, thereby producing no discernable tracks. In fact, Parent stated that the plateau itself was not conducive to footprints.
“The soil out there wouldn’t lend itself to shoehorn shoe impressions,” Gregonis also testified. He saw shoe impressions by the camper that were “somewhat indistinct. But they were reasonably like Pamela Richards’ shoes. There were a number of tracks…but once again, the soil didn’t give any detail.”
The desert terrain that encircled the crime scene would’ve enabled an intruder to reach the plateau by various angles, Parent testified. In addition, the case agent said there were many footpaths which led into the surrounding hills where he found mostly animal tracks. In a later legal brief, Kennedy pondered whether the differential between mostly and entirely was the actual murderer. Numerous dog tracks were spotted throughout, with the potential to at least partially obscure existing shoe impressions.
Richards told the jury that due west of the crime scene there was a trail that led to a 200-yard metal rifle target. As he did on August 9, he walked that trail almost daily in hiking boots. North of the shack, the shelf dipped into a small basin area where Richards kept lumber, tools, a concrete mixer and a water tank. Here, about a week before the murder, Richards pulled a motor out of a Dodge Dakota. A plumbing line from the tank pumped water to the motor home. Both husband and wife paced back and forth whenever the pump was turned on. Richards testified they had both walked down the morning of August 10. Parent did not report footprints in either of these high-traffic places.
Smith discounts law enforcement’s on-scene tracking altogether. After he converted 3-by-5-inch photos onto disks, he says he was able to properly adjust resolution. “There were footprints all over the place…There must have been a thousand of them.”
Defense investigator Pope served 14 years as a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff—where he’d been trained in desert tracking—before the first trial opened. Comparatively, Parent possessed two years of tracking experience with a mountain search and rescue unit. Kennedy and Pope traveled to the scene to scout the environment. Kennedy climbed a hillside and Pope followed. The investigator testified that he did and did not see Kennedy’s tracks where he expected. From his experience, he said it was possible for someone to come down through the clearings and chaparral without leaving footprints. It was as also possible to overlook tracks in that specific terrain, he affirmed.
At times, the art of deflection can be a defense attorney’s best fallback. In terms of alternate suspects, however, Richards’ lawyers found the loom mostly unsupplied with thread. Nonetheless, viable options did exist.
Vagrants were known to hop on and off the area’s railway lines. Freight trains made routine stops less than a mile from the Richards property. Burglaries were common, with some residents victimized multiple times. Bradford told Richards that he was aware of neighbors’ complaints about break-ins. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department reported 59 murders and manslaughters in 1993, the decade’s highest incidence based on FBI historical crime data. In spite of the sparse population, there were three residences within a mile of the Richardses—the closest ranch a quarter-mile away. One of Richards’ neighbors was a drug-addled career criminal, according to Richards. A rumored Peeping Tom who watched Pam through a telescope, he also allegedly stole items from Richards’ property. “I had a couple of face-offs with him,” says Richards. None of these fringe candidates, however, held as much promise as George Patrick.
It appears that Patrick was never a bona fide object of suspicion after he passed a polygraph examination. In fact, Kennedy even declared it his belief that Patrick was innocent. But the story didn’t end there.
“I don’t want to focus on [George] that much, except to point out that the evidence against [George] is at least as strong as it is against Mr. Richards,” Kennedy said.
“She meant everything to me,” Patrick told a polygraph examiner of Pam. He testified he could pinpoint the exact day sexual relations with Pam began. Patrick suffered extensive burns over 70 percent of his body as a result of a helicopter crash in March 1992. Pam stayed by his bedside during the ordeal and recurrent surgeries as a constant companion, and was instrumental in his emotional well-being and recovery, according to his testimony. The morning of Aug. 12, 1993, Pam’s ex-sister-in-law received a phone call from Patrick, according to a police report. She disclosed details of the phone call with authorities. Patrick notified her Pam was deceased and asked for contact numbers for members of Pam’s family. Further, he told her Pam was planning on leaving her husband for Patrick. She said it was odd because she met Patrick in passing once six weeks prior, maintained sporadic phone contact with Pam and had been divorced from Richards’ brother since 1983. Additionally, Richards told police he was extremely irritated that he had received word through his brother that Patrick notified most of Richards’ immediate family and some of his in-laws of Pam’s murder. Patrick also allegedly informed Pam’s parents that Richards had taken out a life insurance policy on his wife.
An Olive Garden bartender told detectives that Pam had complained of Patrick’s possessiveness. An Olive Garden cook told police Pam said she intended to “drop a guy” she was dating who was possessive. The night before her killing, Patrick told detectives that he met Pam in her workplace’s parking lot. Patrick said he urged her to leave her husband before he hurt her. She declined. “It wasn’t angry, it was just frustrated talk,” Patrick said. Another of Pam’s coworkers told police Patrick sent Pam dozens of roses at work. Investigators uncovered 17 greeting cards and one love letter Patrick sent Pam in the year-and-a-half span of their relationship. During the last of two visits to her social worker, Pam reportedly said that her disfigured boyfriend was pressuring her to move in with him, but she ultimately decided she didn’t want to do that. Patrick testified on cross exam that he would not be surprised to learn that Pam had told someone he was putting constant pressure on her and making her life difficult. Kennedy characterized Patrick as an obsessed man indebted to his Florence Nightingale.
A polygraph examiner asked Patrick whether he felt Richards caused Pam’s death.
“Yeah,” Patrick replied
“You feel that strongly about it?”
“If he did not actually hire somebody or do it himself,” Patrick began, “he caused her to be where she was, by herself, when it happened. But more than anything else, he caused her to live a life of complete subordinance.”
Because he’d glanced at a watch, Patrick testified at the last mistrial that Richards answered his phone call a few minutes after midnight on the night of the murder. To the best of his recollection, however, the same call was answered “somewhere between 11:55 and midnight” in Patrick’s testimony from the convicting trial. On that night, Patrick told police he’d unsuccessfully attempted to reach Pam by phone every five minutes from 9:30 p.m. onward. (These were classified as unbillable local calls and therefore not listed on the phone bill.) In contrast, a reading of his father’s bill during prior testimony showed that Patrick had engaged in a 33-minute phone call with a friend at 10:15 p.m. When Patrick described his brief phone call with Pam’s husband to police, he stated that Richards told him Pam had tripped, fallen and hit her head. This speculative remark was omitted when Patrick later recounted the conversation under oath.
By all accounts Patrick had a strong alibi. He spent the majority of the afternoon into the late evening apartment shopping with his daughter. Although he had surgical pins in both hands, he managed to drive between Oxnard, Fontana, Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. Incidentally, police did not corroborate this timeline through the daughter until July 18, 1994, or twelve days into the first trial. Reportedly Patrick arrived home at about 9:30 p.m., where he was observed at various points by both parents. The Richards residence was about a 45-minute drive from Patrick.
The most compelling reason Patrick was eliminated may have been due to his debilitations. “[George] is physically incapable of violence,” Richards told police the day after Pam’s murder. Through an intermediary, Richards even invited him to this wife’s funeral, according to Patrick’s former roommate. “That guy was fairly crippled,” Bradford remembers, “and was not very ambulatory. He didn’t have a lot of strength.”
In the course of Patrick’s phone calls to the Richards residence on August 10, he testified he received a busy signal two or three times. Due to a history of bad local service, Patrick dialed the phone company to ascertain whether there was a malfunction in the line. He was advised by the operator that the busy signal was legitimate. The phone was not off the hook nor the line out of order. A security expert at GTE, the phone company, later testified that a 50-cent charge appeared on Patrick’s bill for a “verified busy signal” at 11:42 p.m. An operator authenticated a busy signal by breaking into the line and listening for talking. This occurred five minutes before the prosecution’s earliest estimate of Richards’ arrival. The GTE representative was not called to testify in the final trial.
Judge Powers presided over the third and fourth trials. Twice Kennedy filed motions to disqualify Powers, respectively due to a forthcoming election and a claim of improper handling of an ex-parte application. Kennedy withdrew the first petition after a calendar judge reassigned the case while the recusal matter awaited resolution. The request became moot when Richards’ case concluded before any ruling could be rendered. The second disqualification motion failed.
In his second brief, Kennedy wrote the defense’s grounds for Powers’ first recusal materialized when “the heat of her re-election campaign burned with too much constabularial and prosecutorial fuel for the requisite neutrality.” Actual prejudice was cited as the basis for the second motion. On Nov. 28, 1994, Kennedy submitted a confidential application to obtain Patrick’s medical records. In the order, Kennedy alerted the court that “the material is not discoverable by the People from the defendant by express reservation.” After he learned that Powers had elicited Risley’s opinion before ruling on the request, Kennedy considered his defense strategy fatally compromised and immediately moved to dismiss the judge on November 29. Preserved in the court record, Kennedy’s reaction was unequivocal.
“Thunderous news of this monstrous breach of confidentiality, occasioned by improper ex parte communications between the court and the prosecution, resounded throughout the halls of the courthouse, with all who learned of it shaking their heads and wagging their fingers, and several remonstrating against this attorney for having let this case go before Judge Powers in the first place.”
In her filed response, Powers rejected the accusation of bias. “There was no language in the Ex Parte Application that would indicate to the reader that Mr. Kennedy wished to keep the request confidential, and I did not infer such a desire.” Ultimately, Kennedy would fail to unseat Powers from the bench.
Subjectivity can often color what is perceived through a beholder’s lens. On the other end of the spectrum, objectivity must be the inflexible aim of every ethical scientist. Many disciplines of forensic science are interpretative by definition; however, interpretation is always filtered through one’s perceptual field. The 2009 National Research Council’s report underscores the subjective risks inherent in blood-spatter analysis. “Many sources of variability arise with the production of bloodstain patterns, and their interpretation is not nearly as straightforward as the process implies.”
Dean Gialamas understands the challenge in a judicial setting. “Reliability is a tough word,” he says. “Unfortunately, what the end-user wants, right, what a jury, a judge, a trier of fact wants is absolute certainty. They want that when you see A it means B. That’s not what this science can do.” Unlike DNA or fingerprinting, Gialamas says, blood at a crime scene may be deposited through a host of dynamic actions. In the Richards case, Gialamas was enlisted by the defense to render opinions about bloodstain evidence on the defendant’s clothing. While there were indisputable similarities in both sets of observation, Gregonis and Gialamas drew sharply distinct conclusions.
In advance of his lab report, Gregonis’ training in bloodstain pattern analysis consisted of a four-day course held at the sheriff’s academy and a one-day symposium conducted by the California Association of Criminalists. He’d also served as co-instructor for the same academy course twice. Comparatively, Gialamas had taken specialty courses on blood-spatter interpretation, in addition to having presented and published forensic papers on bloodstain collection, methods and techniques. By the final trial, he was a senior criminalist with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Before Richards’ first trial, Gregonis had testified four times as a blood-spatter expert. Gialamas had done so twice.
Gregonis and Gialamas agreed there was no spatter, only transfer, present on Richards’ shirt. Beside a smear-type stain on the phone’s receiver, Gregonis said he would’ve expected more blood deposited there to support Richards’ story. But Richards testified that he wiped his bloody hands on his pants and on a blue rag. A statement from Nourse’s audiotape confirmed the claim. Gregonis opined that a spot on Richards’ shoe was diluted; Gialamas refuted that assessment in his lab report. After interpreting Richards’ pants, one of the bloodstains Gregonis classified as medium-energy spatter was later determined to belong to Bill Richards. Gialamas found only two of 22 stain areas on Richards’ clothing consistent with medium-energy impact spatter. Furthermore, Gialamas testified that if a cinderblock were dropped on a head from an overtop angle, it would produce a radial pattern of blood distribution. Medium-energy spatter was found on a TV cart, wooden porch and stepping stones situated around the victim. The preponderance of transfer or contact-type smears on Richards’ clothing gave Gialamas reason for pause.
“When focusing attention on the patterns within a few feet of the victim,” he wrote in his lab report, “a serious concern arises: With all the bloodspatter found around the victim, one surely would expect to find such spatter on the perpetrator. Where are the numerous medium energy impact spatters on the clothing? The lack of finding more than two isolated stains on the clothing from William Richards strongly suggests that these clothing items were not worn by the perpetrator.”
Both criminalists performed impact experiments to enhance their judgments. Gialamas dropped a cinder block on a blood-soaked sponge to note the blood pattern and distribution deposited on nearby denim. Gregonis effectuated the same demonstrative purpose with a rat trap and bloody sponges. Gialamas also dabbed bloody tips of hair across a shoelace. After this test, Gialamas testified that given the totality of the surrounding stains, blood droplets on Richards’ shoelace which Gregonis deemed medium-energy spatter were at least equally suggestive of hair transfer. In spite of Gregonis’ dummy re-enactment, Gialamas found the evidence more consistent with Richards’ cradling account than the wearer of his clothing acting as assailant. It was Gregonis’ first experimentation to simulate a cradling event. Based on this experiment’s results, the county criminalist expected more blood on Richards’ work shirt if he’d only cradled Pam. Between the blunt-force trauma and cradling exercise, however, Gregonis testified he allotted four minutes. No test was performed to mimic contact hours after the infliction of Pam’s head wounds—at which point her body would’ve been almost entirely drained of blood. Kennedy directly challenged the experiment’s value.
“Now you’re not also asking this jury to believe that the blood-draining characteristics of your dummy’s head is the same as that of a human being who had been dead for some time and turned over, are you?”
“Not exactly, no,” Gregonis replied.
Others are far more critical of the exercise. Justin Brooks, the California Innocence Project’s founder, believes it was an absurd proposition to compare gel-type liquid, a pint of blood and latex-covered Styrofoam with flesh, bone, cartilage and brain. Simpson says he’s never seen a re-creation like Gregonis’. “I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish,” he says. “The way it looks to me, it looks like it was completely useless.”
Richards testified that he absentmindedly picked up the cinder block and dropped it during his initial stupor. Gregonis testified that backsplash from a blood pool on the ground could produce medium-energy stains on clothing. Kennedy introduced the possibility that blood flicked off fingertips may also cause medium-energy stains. However, Gregonis felt both these actions were unlikely to generate the specific stains he observed on Richards’ pants or shoelace. Gregonis described blood he saw in daylight hours as “fairly fresh,” “a nice crimson color” and “wet.” Blood on a fence “had a nice sheen to the top of it.” While there was also dirt, Gregonis recalled seeing liquid blood in the victim’s head wound. He also acknowledged that there could be captured blood in the head, and repositioning the body could’ve permitted wet or fresh blood to seep out.
As distinguished from a primary standard taken directly from the victim’s body, Gregonis educated jurors on what constitutes a secondary sample. “A secondary standard is a sample of blood that is taken either from clothing or from the crime scene which has essentially a hundred percent chance of being from the individual that it’s taken as a standard for.” Gregonis collected two secondary samples from separate bloodstains soaked into dirt near the victim. These reference samples were turned over to Criminalist David Stockwell, whose forensic specialty was serology, or the scientific study and typing of bodily fluids for identification purposes. When Kennedy asked about the potential for contamination by the suspect’s blood, Gregonis minimized the risk. During closing argument, however, Kennedy did not mince words with regard to his stance on Gregonis’ extraction method.
“I have never heard of anything so idiotic in my whole life, and he’ll never find a textbook that says that’s the way to do it. It’s obscene. And you and I deserve a better service than that.”
Saliva was detected on Richards’ collar, inside a bloodstain measuring about an inch in diameter. The prosecution’s pat theory was that Richards never cradled his wife’s body, he only carried her after the assault. It was an “equally plausible explanation,” Gregonis told Kennedy, that the saliva was previously emitted by the shirt’s wearer in everyday speech.
Because investigators found a broken fingernail attributable to Pam located feet from the generator, blood pools in the same location were not analyzed until the second trial. Gregonis merely presumed the blood was shed by Pam. Most of the blood work and serology was left undone until that juncture as well.
Two days after the first trial ended in a hung jury on Aug. 31, 1994, R. D. Knadler, the Specialized Detective Division’s captain, issued an interoffice memo to P. Michael Kellet, the Scientific Investigations Division’s laboratory manager. Priority lab work was the subject. In preparation for a retrial, it enumerated 15 forensic tasks that had not been completed to date.
“Detectives interviewed some of the jurors from the trial,” it reads, “and learned they perceived several deficiencies in the People’s case, a portion of which had to do with forensic work which was not completed.” Among other items, it ordered Pam’s blood typed, her fingernail scrapings checked for trace evidence, bloodstain identification, analysis and comparisons from recovered pillows, and examinations of various other bloodstains throughout the crime scene. Stiglitz suggests the memo demonstrates a circle-the-wagons mentality. “‘We gotta get our act together,'” he imagines they admonished one other. “‘We have to come up with evidence to convict. Let’s get our ducks in a row.’ So I think the word went out that we want to make sure our testimony supports guilt here.”
Bill Richards’ fingernails were never scraped for trace evidence. Bradford testified that it would’ve been pointless since Richards had already acknowledged bodily contact with his wife. However, Sheridan discovered wounds on Pam during autopsy that were consistent with scratch marks. On cross exam, Bradford admitted that in retrospect, he would have taken the fingernail scrapings to quash Smith’s line of questioning. No dusting for fingerprints was ever done on the cars, phone, storage shed, motor home interior or two smooth fist-sized rocks.
Two fingertips were severed at autopsy and transported to Gregonis in a single jar. Again, Kennedy raised the issue of contamination prevention. “It’s not the ultimate way to do things but I think considering that they both came from the same individual, I don’t find it offensive at all,” Gregonis mused. “I think that the optimal [way] to do it would be to have packaged those two in two separate jars,” he testified.
“I cannot state that he is in fact the assailant, no,” Gregonis testified in the first mistrial. The last mistrial, however, evinced a change of heart. “Based on the physical evidence, as well as statements that I have been privileged to read from Mr. Richards, and other evidence that is being presented in court, I believe that William Richards first strangled and then bludgeoned his wife to death.”
Irving Root gave defense testimony in two mistrials, but passed away in 1995 before the decisive 1997 trial. From 1965 until 1991, Root served in the field of forensic pathology in San Bernardino County’s employ. His first 15 years were spent as a part-time pathologist. In 1980 he assumed full-time pathologist’s duties for the county’s coroner’s office. Root retired in June 1991. Contemporaneous to Richards’ first trial, he was the People’s witness on cause of death for two trials being prosecuted by Gary Fagan, Risley’s boss within the district attorney’s office. At the time, Root had testified in 11 death penalty cases on appeal as the State’s expert. During his career he performed in excess of 20,000 autopsies. By contrast, Sheridan had completed 2,000.
In fact, Root testified that Sheridan trained under him as one of his residents.
“A lot of his observations, a lot of his understanding of the situation with forensic pathology, were basically spot-on in many areas,” says Dr. Thomas Young, who was trained by Root in the early ’80s. “He was respected by me.” Another of Root’s former trainees, Dr. Gregory Reiber shares similar praise. “From my perspective, he had a solid reputation in the field, and was well regarded by peers.”
Sheridan’s autopsy report and witness testimony, autopsy and crime-scene photos, and law enforcement’s investigative reports were all reviewed by Root. In turn, he drafted a summary report containing his observations and opinions. In testimony, Root readily acknowledged that time of death is an inexact science.
Root believed Pam Richards’ primary cause of death was blunt head trauma. Other factors contributed, but the blunt head injury was the predominant reason. Death did not occur instantaneously, but over a period of several minutes. The great deal of bleeding under the right side of Pam’s scalp indicated that her heart continued to pump after violent blows were leveled. Sheridan told the jury that the victim had been manually strangulated, but Root disagreed. There was an absence of pressure marks on the neck—either the victim’s or assailant’s—usual in strangulation. When blood is congested and trapped in the head, fine pinpoint hemorrhages appear about the face. Root did not observe these. Where Sheridan viewed the fracturing of both sides of the neck’s hyoid bone as one definitive proof of strangulation, Root contradicted that conclusion. In his experience, this type of injury could be produced by blunt trauma. Across the neck’s midline Root noted a telltale rectangular pattern abrasion, likely caused by a heavy, right-angle-edged instrument. Finally, there was more internal bleeding in the neck than expected from strangulation.
Nourse’s and Richards’ insights about the victim’s body temperature were used as Root’s primary reference points. Before covering her over with a sleeping bag, Richards felt his wife’s body was cold to the touch, or some slight variant thereof. Nourse indicated the body was neither warm, nor cold. Root testified that this was not a normal temperature for a live human being. Heat first escapes through exposed skin. However, the core temperature can remain much warmer as a dead body cools at a gradual rate. While a sleeping bag can temporarily increase surface temperature, the body does not warm overall and heat loss will be ongoing. Sand and dirt, Root testified, supplied the body with decent insulation as well. When Risley challenged the pathologist on this point, Root responded from the witness stand that clay, or adobe brick, had been used as effective insulating material for centuries.
A significant portion of blood was pooled under heavy-gauge-steel fencing near the victim. Grass that had grown through spaces in the grid work was flattened. Since there was a waffle pattern of injuries to the right side of Pam’s face caused by a massive head injury, with her right ear severely lacerated, Root determined that this is where the cinder block impacted her left side at least once but conceivably more times. Linear marks in crisscross patterns were documented elsewhere on the face.
When the body was rolled in the morning, dirt that had been kicked onto the face fell away. If still wet, Root would’ve expected the debris to adhere and cake into the blood.
Root bookended a pair of times to frame a window for time of death. Pam’s last verifiable act was to leave a message on Patrick’s answering machine at 7:14 p.m., whose phone purportedly recorded the exact time. A little before 11:58 p.m., Richards told Patrick by phone that his wife was deceased. Among other considerations, Root took especial note of three large bloodstains in the soil near the victim. There was a great quantity of blood in each. No blood trails connected the pools, only the blood source. Movement of the body accounted for three distinct pools. Autopsy and crime-scene photos show faint lividity present on the victim’s back, which meant the body had exsanguinated, or bled out almost completely. While an unobstructed view is impossible given the daytime photos, where the head came to rest overnight was key. “There is no photographic evidence that there is any significant amount of blood soaking into the dirt immediately under or adjacent to the victim’s head,” Root wrote. He testified a blunt-force injury of this nature without “major arteriole sprays,” or gushing blood loss from cuts to main arteries, would cause considerable postmortem drainage. Most of Pam’s blood had oozed into the soil before she was placed in the final position. Unable to peg down a definite duration for this amount of blood loss, Root estimated a time frame of “many minutes and possibly up to a few hours.”
“It is my opinion that the death of Pamela Richards occurred several hours prior to the arrival of William Richards,” he wrote in his summary report.
On cross exam, Risley pointed out Nourse’s references to a “fresh” body, and that the patrolman had seen more bodies in an EMT capacity than as a peace officer.
Root calmly replied, “I’ve reviewed many, literally hundreds of EMT reports, and I’ve never seen one of them where the EMT personnel have estimated time of death.”
Griffith Thomas, retained as the defense pathologist on the last trial, didn’t understand why routine sections of Pam’s contusions weren’t taken at autopsy. Sections are thin slices of tissue frozen for later microscopic analysis. Thomas testified that these aid time-of-death determination because they can measure the live body’s inflammatory response, or vital reaction, to wounds. Based on a visual review of the autopsy photos, he also stated that the color and well-defined appearance of some bruises indicated they were hours old before death occurred.
In the hyper-violent struggle, a tuft of light blue fibers became jammed in one of Pam’s cracked fingernails. Based on hue, fiber size and approximate weave, Gregonis told the jury that they were indistinguishable from Richards’ work shirt. Conversely, Gialamas testified that both sets of fibers were matched on superficial criteria alone. No dye test was performed due to insufficient material. Dye changes from light to dark enabled Gregonis to judge weave pattern. Kennedy scoffed at the comparison. “We don’t have a whole thread here, we have a tuft,” he asserted in closing argument. “You can’t determine a weave from even a whole thread because a weave, by definition, has to do with intersections perpendicularly or at some angle.” Prior to the Richards’ case, Gregonis had never been called to testify as a fiber analyst.
At the preliminary hearing, Bradford compared the color of Richards’ work shirt to that worn by the deputy public defender that day. Gregonis admitted to Smith that cotton is the most common fabric on earth. “I argued that belonged to 10 million shirts worldwide,” Smith reflects. “How in the world are you going to separate that to one freakin’ shirt? That I disagreed with completely.” When Gregonis microscopically inspected Richards’ shirt, he discovered no snag or missing fabric whatsoever. In testimony, the criminalist acknowledged the possibility that approximately 15 fibers would leave a visible defect in the source garment.
While no signs of the vicious beating were apparent on Richards’ shirt or bare upper body, the People drew parallels between a crescent-shaped lesion on Pam’s hand and Richards’ abnormal dentition. But Gregonis testified at the preliminary hearing that he did not see a bite mark on the victim’s hand at the crime scene. No saliva swab of the injury was collected there or at autopsy. Sheridan, in fact, testified before the last trial that the mark was not human in origin.
“It has none of the features of a bite mark at all,” he declared.
Dr. Gregory Golden was the chief forensic odontologist of San Bernardino County at the time Richards was prosecuted. Only when the defense counsel secured Golden did the prosecution retain Sperber—Golden’s colleague and referral—to rebut the prospective testimony. Golden testified that he was disappointed with how his agency had missed the bite mark, and the unsatisfactory manner it was photographed. Two days before the last trial began, Parent signed a sworn statement declaring that he’d furnished Sperber with a single autopsy photo for bite-mark analysis. It also indicated that Parent was employed by the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office at the time of the 1997 declaration. In testimony, Golden affirmed Sperber’s statement about the rarity of Richards’ under-erupted canine—as well as its incidence rate within the general population of less than two percent. After taking Richards’ dental impressions, Golden informed Smith that Richards could not be eliminated as the biter. In a random sampling of 15 of Golden’s private reference models, however, the odontologist found that one-third of these could’ve also produced the victim’s pattern injury. In the end, his report suggested that the bite-mark evidence be disregarded due to the photo’s poor quality and the bite’s generic nature.
Only at Pam’s wake did Richards notice the lesion and identify it as a bite mark. Hopkins saw it too and reinforced Richards’ opinion. He always wanted it to be woven into his defense, and fought until the fourth trial to get it in.
“I submit to you the evidence shows, yes, this relationship was coming to an end,” Risley pronounced in closing argument. As he did years before, Richards emphatically denies this view of his marriage today. “Divorce was not imminent,” he writes. He described the couple as fighters one day, lovers the next. For a time, he believed his wife was unhappy and wished to part ways. Authorities were told he was aware of her consultation with a divorce lawyer. Richards related to police that Pam did seek more independence—as she’d gone straight from her parents’ home to Richards’—in an iteration of a midlife crisis. Stark living conditions also exerted undue strain on the marriage. Finances were a stressor. Richards would later tell detectives, however, that mid-morning on Aug. 10, 1993, she finally allayed his fears. “She sat on my knee and cuddled up with me and we talked,” he said. During the heart-to-heart, Pam vowed not to leave her husband and instead resolve their marital troubles. “That, to me, was the biggest relief probably in my life.”
That morning, they ate a late breakfast at a local diner. According to Richards, Pam would later purchase two hamburgers for him with her tip money since he had gone without lunch the day before. As she bagged his meal, she placed a Kermit the Frog PEZ dispenser inside. Before leaving for work, Pam said goodbye. “She came over and hugged me and kissed me and told me how much she loved me. And I went off to work.”
Shortly thereafter, Pam visited a mall to get her husband’s boot repaired. It was fixed and later spotted still sitting in the shop’s bag at the Richards home. A family friend interviewed by police recounted Pam’s phone conversation with her in the late afternoon. Pam said her relationship just wasn’t working, but they were trying to work it out. About five minutes before afternoon closing time on the same day, a teller reported that Pam patronized her bank. The teller was already acquainted with Pam and noted she was “her normal happy self.” Her Olive Garden supervisor repeated this viewpoint after speaking with Pam by phone. Later in the evening, Pam seemed in good spirits according to her brother’s subsequent testimony.
When the fourth trial opened, Risley alluded to Pam’s affair with Patrick as a motive for the crime. To counter this stance, Richards’ coworker of five years testified that he knew Richards to speak casually about his open relationship. Logged into court exhibits was a stipulation signed by a member of a swinger’s club Pam and Bill attended in the mid-’80s. The man indicated that he and his wife had swapped partners with the Richardses. Bill exhibited no anxiety about someone engaging in sexual intercourse with his wife.
Moments before his arrest, Richards explained to Cardwell that his note outlining a division of marital assets weeks before was nothing more than the white flag of his capitulation.
“Let me tell you something about me,” he began. “I fight tooth and nail, mean as possible, for something that I believe is right. But when I reach a point of defeat, I do just the opposite. All the fight drains out of me; all the anger drains out of me. And yes, I did feel defeated because I did believe she wanted to leave me quite a while before that…I had reached that point, and that point was not aggressiveness. It was total defeat.”
The second motive, Risley projected, was Pam’s ruinous mismanagement of the couple’s finances. She was driving him into the “poorhouse,” the prosecutor said. She maxed out credit cards and bounced checks. Risley pointed to Richards’ closure of their checking account in June as proof of premeditation. It cost $12 to close because it was overdrawn. Yet in 20-plus years of marriage, Richards had previously closed four other joint accounts with his wife listed as accountholder. Separate accounts enabled them to split the bills. He was to take over the larger expenses while she was to handle three low-limit cards, Richards explained to investigators. At the bank, he did not betray any animosity toward his wife, the teller relayed under oath.
More than six months before the murder, the couple depleted resources to pay for roundtrips to Arizona. They exhausted a previous home’s equity in visits to Bill Richards’ father there, who was dying of cancer. Pam’s layoff came soon after his passing. When the repossession agent confronted the couple with his order on August 9, Richards did not react with anger or hostility. Later he told detectives that if additional payments to the finance company proved unavoidable, he was resigned to the vehicle’s forfeiture.
Pam was buried with jewelry worth $5,000, according to Richards. Borrowed money funded two funerals—one each in California and Arizona—which totaled about $12,000. Hopkins officiated both services. Quaas recalls that Richards didn’t bother about price, opting instead for the best coffin he could afford. Two weeks after the crime, Richards phoned the bank “very upset, possibly crying,” according to the teller’s remembrance from the witness stand.
Over several months they were far from insolvency, he told police, just simply living paycheck to paycheck. But after he took control of the books, he writes, they began to make headway. “We were actually approaching the best financial situation of our lives.” Off-road vehicles, furniture and electronics were all owned outright. He managed to sock away $1,500. After paying off his pickup and land, he estimated one month’s bills would’ve been payable with one week’s salary. “Within a year, we would have a new house, my own business running on the side plus my income from work.”
In the last trial’s closing argument, Risley presented an 11-minute window for the jury’s consideration. It was predicated on the prosecution’s timetable of Richards’ arrival at 11:47 p.m. minus the first 911 call at 11:58 p.m. Patrick’s earlier call was not accounted for in the arithmetic. “Eleven minutes,” he said. “I wish that the judge would just let me stop right now, shut down my argument, and we watched the clock for eleven minutes. She is not going to let me do it.”
“No,” Powers announced.
“No. But I urge you folks that when you go back in that jury room, you sit there in silence and someone get a stopwatch and you guys watch eleven minutes. I submit to you that you will be amazed how long eleven minutes can seem.”
“Actually,” the judge broke in, “we might take a break right now.”
“Close. Why don’t we take ten minutes. Normally I don’t like to interrupt an argument…”
More than two years earlier, in a different courtroom, on a different day, Kennedy delivered a resonant message in his summation.
“There are people after 10 or 15 years who have been found to have been wrongfully convicted because of what you have just seen here.”
After a five-week murder trial, jury deliberations began at 2:18 p.m. on July 1, 1997, according to the trial minutes. A jury foreperson was elected at this time. On Wednesday, July 2 at 9:15 a.m., jurors requested read backs of Mark Nourse’s and George Patrick’s testimonies. The jury was excused July 3 to July 6 for Independence Day weekend. Deliberations resumed on Monday, July 7 at 9:32 a.m. At 11:20 a.m., the court was advised the jury was deadlocked. Excluding documented breaks and elapsed time during the court reporter’s read backs, the jury had deliberated Richards’ fate for no more than seven hours and 39 minutes before it stalemated. Risley implored the judge for a vigorous inquiry. Two hours later Smith filed a motion to dismiss the hung jury. Powers questioned the foreperson whether more deliberation might break the deadlock. The juror expressed uncertainty about the definition of reasonable doubt. Powers replied that it had already been provided. Two ballots had been cast at that stage, the foreperson indicated.
“Do you feel that some additional discussion would assist you at this time?” Powers inquired again.
“It would be – I honestly don’t know.”
The judge then individually polled jurors to ascertain whether more dialogue might help. Six no’s and six maybes were tallied—at which point Powers asked for a resumption. On July 8, the jury went from deadlocked to a unanimous verdict in three hours and 33 minutes of further deliberations.
“We, the jury in the above-entitled action, find the defendant, WILLIAM JOSEPH RICHARDS, guilty of the offense of MURDER WITH PREMEDITATION AND DELIBERATION IN THE FIRST DEGREE.”
The Daily Press ran a brief article, “Man Guilty of Murdering Wife,” the week of Richards’ conviction. Risley told the local newspaper that he would’ve pursued a fourth retrial had this jury failed to reach a verdict. An alternate juror interviewed in the report said he believed reasonable doubt existed. “I just didn’t think there was any real compelling evidence except the bite mark Mr. Smith brought into the case,” he said. While not surprised by the jury’s quick turnaround, the alternate juror did say he was surprised by the guilty verdict. Jury records have been sealed since the trial’s end.
Richards’ sentencing hearing was held on Dec. 4, 1998. Two women delivered statements on Richards’ behalf. Cathy Hopkins told the court that police investigators initially advised her that the injury on Pam’s right hand was caused by dogs scratching the victim at the scene. Richards was a caring man who loved his wife. “This is a mistake,” she added. The other speaker was Kathleen Olejnik. Six months prior, she signed a three-page handwritten affidavit which was admitted into the court record. Olejnik was Pam’s younger sister, and had known Bill Richards for 28 years.
“I believe William Richards did not kill or murder my sister Pamela Richards,” Olejnik wrote.
The written declaration contained bombshells. Olejnik alleged that Patrick phoned her at home in Indiana the night after Pam’s death. In an unsolicited volley, the boyfriend stated that he had fallen in love with Pam, intended to marry her and denied any involvement in her demise. “Bill did this to her,” he allegedly said. She was dismayed that Patrick had somehow obtained her phone number. The statement included other scathing accusations. In vain, Patrick tried to lure Pam away from her marriage with the promise of a large settlement that was pending. Pam confided to Olejnik multiple times that she feared Patrick, not her husband. Patrick sent flowers to Pam’s workplace and bothered her there. While she was home alone, Patrick stalked Pam.
At the hearing, she testified before the court that she had traveled seven hours by plane to attend the day’s proceeding, leaving her children at home. The sisters spoke by phone three-to-five times a week, according to Olejnik. It was also her parents’ belief that Richards was not responsible for their daughter’s death. “My sister told me she loved Bill. She would never divorce him.” Directing her comments to the prosecutor, she questioned his loyalties. “You’re supposed to be for my sister,” she complained. Olejnik finished and Risley responded. “The only phone call that I received, and it’s unfortunate, in five years from Ms. Richards’ sister [sic] was how could I be prosecuting Mr. Richards. It’s unfortunate that she never bothered to call me to discuss, contact and discuss the evidence we had on Mr. Richards.” He then concluded that a jury of Richards’ peers had convicted him, and he was to be removed from society. Olejnik passed away in 2003.
Judge Powers sentenced Richards to California State Prison for the indeterminate term of 25 years to life. He was remanded to the custody of the Department of Corrections, and the hearing ended.
WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS
At the time of its founding in 1999, the California Innocent Project was only the fourth of its kind nationwide. After stints practicing criminal defense in the District of Columbia and Michigan, Justin Brooks relocated to Southern California and established the Project. It is akin to a medical residency program, where law students assist staff in vetting actual applicants and researching new clients’ cases. As a clinical institute, the Project operates out of San Diego-based California Western School of Law. About 60 innocence projects now dot the United States. While they foster a collaborative spirit, they all function as independent entities.
“We have the oddest assortment of funding,” Brooks says. Dodgeball tournaments, auctions, bake sales, sponsored mountain hikes, state and federal grants, and private donations keep the Project afloat. The single biggest donor is the Eagles rock band and its lead guitarist, Joe Walsh. When California’s Penal Code 1405 was enacted in 2001, felony defendants were granted the post-conviction right to forensic DNA testing. The state grant-funded the Project to investigate 1405 claims. “The state recognizes that we screen cases for innocence,” explains Brooks. “So they thought it was a good idea to fund us because we actually cut down on the number of litigations because we talk to the guys, we investigate the cases. And we file on very few cases.” Since its inception, the Project has garnered nine exonerations.
A writ of habeas corpus, or a habeas petition in shorthand legalese, occurs at the conclusion of the appeals stage. The typical sequence is trial, appeal, supreme court petition, habeas petition and clemency. An appeal deals strictly with record issues evident in transcripts, but a habeas petition covers non-record issues. “That’s where we live,” says Brooks. “It’s all the stuff that we find out about that was never brought up at trial.” Once a habeas petition is filed, the court determines whether there’s sufficient merit to proceed. Beyond that hurdle, the district attorney is ordered to show just cause why the petition should not be granted. The district attorney’s return can be countered by the petitioner’s response. Then, the court either grants or denies the petition outright, or it orders an evidentiary hearing to resolve the matter. Essentially, the legal standard for success is the inverse of reasonable doubt. Evidence must point “unerringly to innocence” and undermine the prosecution’s case.
On Aug. 17, 2000, an appellate court upheld Richards’ conviction. Richards completed a Project questionnaire in February 2001. As of November 2001, the Project launched its investigation into Richards’ direct claims of innocence. A 1405 motion was filed in December 2002. Judge Powers approved DNA testing for the forensic material collected at the crime scene in July 2003 through the state Justice Department. Until test results were completed, however, a legitimate habeas petition could not be filed. Despite the Project’s frequent requests for status updates, the DOJ cited the lower priority of Richards’ case for its failure to perform testing in a more timely manner. “Their higher priority is open, active cases as opposed to cold cases or a case that had resulted in conviction,” Stiglitz observes. A partial DOJ report was prepared in January 2006, but a portion of forensic work was farmed out to a private facility as well. Three crime labs and almost two years later in September 2007, all the tests were in. All told, the DNA testing took over four years. On Dec. 5, 2007, the Project filed Richards’ habeas petition in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
According to the petitioner, three principle factors led to the guilty verdict: no evidence of a third party at the crime scene; the blue tuft lodged in Pam’s fingernail judged indistinguishable from Richards’ work shirt; and the alleged bite mark’s purported match to Richards’ unique dentition. The Project debunked these foundations step-by-step. New DNA tests established another individual handled a murder weapon and DNA from hair under Pam’s fingernail implicated a third party. Autopsy photos and videotape footage showed evidence was allegedly manufactured by Gregonis to tie Richards to Pam’s assault. Finally, forensic odontologists on both sides rendered unsound scientific opinions based on limited access to information.
The People’s returns attacked the petitioner’s cause on a host of fronts. After seven years, the habeas petition should have been procedurally barred due to its untimeliness. The petitioner had a habit of beating his wife. Police interviews of Patrick, Pam’s social worker and others were enclosed as return exhibits. Richards failed a lie-detector test. Issues with the low-resolution image used by forensic odontologists were already presented ad nauseam at trial. The petitioner introduced insufficient independent evidence to meet its standard. Allegations leveled against Gregonis were baseless, and Project attorneys should have been reported to the California State Bar for professional misconduct. Several other points constituted a rehash of core prosecutorial positions introduced at trial.
Accounts of domestic abuse and polygraph reports are inadmissible in court. The Project rejected these claims as transparent ploys to prejudice Richards with what the criminal justice system deems unreliable. “Lie detector tests are not evidence in trials for a reason,” Simpson says. “Primarily, the reason is people can often fail a lie detector test when they have not committed the crime.” He says it solely measures the body’s reactive stress to questions, often accusatory in nature. “The only conceivable reason to put that in the opening brief is to poison the well,” Stiglitz added. In the end, Richards’ Project attorneys were equally undeterred by allegations of spousal abuse. Simpson was swayed by Olejnik’s support of her brother-in-law and her refutations of violence within the marriage. Brooks dismissed the hearsay because it was never substantiated. A history of severe abuse, he says, usually precipitates a murder with this level of brutality.
The People filed three briefs before a second amended return was finally accepted by Judge Brian McCarville. Among the Project’s reasons to strike the returns were the blanket generality of denials and nonresponsive treatment of specific facts. “The back-and-forth is not customary because usually the other side presents a filing that you can respond to,” notes Simpson. “It was definitely not gamesmanship or anything like that.” Grover Merritt, the lead deputy district attorney for the Appellate Services Unit, was a signee on all three motions. Stiglitz gives his unvarnished opinion of Merritt. “Some of his work product is terrible to the point of ludicrous. But he’s no fool. He’s no fool. He’s a smart guy. He knows the law, but he’s a quirky kind of lawyer.” Merritt declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ultimately, McCarville found just cause to grant an evidentiary hearing and scheduled a trial date for Jan. 26, 2009. Including oral arguments, there were six days of trial and multiple briefs over a six-month stretch.
“It was never my opinion that the injury on the victim’s hand could only have been created by the defendant and two percent of the population,” Sperber wrote in 2007. In preparation for Richards’ habeas petition, Sperber and Golden each produced recantations of their original testimonies. In particular, Sperber’s declaration included radically new assessments. He testified to scientifically inaccurate percentages at the alleged insistence of the district attorney. Percentages are inappropriate in bite-mark testimony. Risley’s closing argument misstated Sperber’s testimony. “I testified without the benefit of all the evidence that would have been relevant to a bite mark analysis,” he wrote. The single photo should never have been relied upon as conclusive evidence of guilt, he continued. Sperber never received photos of other injuries nor crime-scene images with instruments which could’ve created the crescent-shaped lesion. With the benefit of all the photographic evidence and greater experience, he could not say with any certainty that the injury was a human bite mark at all. Sperber would eventually testify that Richards’ teeth were not consistent with the lesion.
“Norm Sperber’s a big boy, okay?” Risley reacts to Sperber’s account of coerced testimony on percentages. “Norm Sperber, at the time and probably still, is one of the more preeminent forensic odontologists around the country, in the nation. Bill Richards was not Norm Sperber’s first rodeo, okay? If he was uncomfortable testifying to something, then he would’ve let me know, trust me. So, why he said that in his declaration? Hey, he said what he said.”
Gregonis’ case file includes a Scientific Investigations Division general request form date stamped May 23, 1994. The requesting officer is Gregonis. A handwritten entry described the requested examination: “3 photos given to Norm Parent to send to forensic odontologist.” This was 45 days prior to the commencement of Richards’ first trial. Fifteen years later, Stiglitz asked Parent under oath why no record exists of a corresponding odontological report having been generated as a result of this request. Parent remembered the specific form, but not the associated photos.
“I discussed it with my team and the team sergeant,” Parent testified. “It was determined basically when I was at the autopsy, the pathologist, in his opinion, thought – told me in his opinion he thought the bite mark on the arm was a canine.”
“And is this pathologist – do you remember the name of the pathologist?” Stiglitz inquired.
“At the time I believe it would have been Dr. Frank Sheridan.”
On July 19, 1994, Sheridan’s testimony about the lesion on Pam’s right hand, however, seemingly contradicted Parent’s testimony in 2009.
“So human or otherwise,” Risley asked on redirect exam, “what you observed is not even a bite mark?”
“That’s correct,” Sheridan replied. At the convicting trial, Sheridan made no reference to any canine bite mark anywhere on the victim’s body.
Golden testified that bite-mark analysis is considered highly subjective. Less open to interpretation were the American Board of Forensic Odontology’s guidelines in 1994, which dictated that all available evidence must be reviewed prior to rendering an expert opinion. At the time of his declaration in support of Richards’ petition, Golden remained the chief forensic odonologist for San Bernardino County. In 2007, he digitally scanned and enlarged a 35-millimeter slide of the purported bite mark. Golden utilized Richards’ original overlay to compare against the digital image. “The overlay does not line up perfectly with the bitemark,” he wrote, “therefore I would tend to exclude Richards as the suspected biter.” The county expert also stated that the injury was just as likely inflicted by dogs at the crime scene. He also testified he was not provided with requisite police reports or complete autopsy and crime-scene photos at the time of Richards’ prosecution.
“New technology definitively excludes Petitioner as a possible biter,” the Project authors postulated in their habeas petition. Dr. Michael Bowers is a forensic odontologist who employed cutting-edge techniques in digitized enhancement to re-evaluate the bite-mark evidence. This modern method did not exist in the forensic literature of 1997, Bowers wrote in his 2008 declaration. Alongside Dr. Ray Johansen, a forensic odontologist who also testified at Richards’ evidentiary hearing, Bowers literally wrote the book on this digital innovation. They co-authored “Digital Analysis of Bite Mark Evidence Using Adobe Photoshop” in 2000. In addition, the FBI peer-reviewed an article Bowers published on digital correction of photographic evidence. Bowers was able to rectify the angular distortion of the low-quality autopsy photo. He obtained the Styrofoam exemplars from Richards’ dentition used by Sperber in the 1997 trial. Bowers testified that a dental model of Richards’ lower arch, when pressed into Styrofoam, showed the under-erupted canine tooth made an equal indentation as the adjacent teeth. In 1997, Sperber testified the abnormal canine would not make an indentation in any material based on visual comparison. Using an overlay on the rectified photo, Bowers concluded three of Richards’ teeth superimposed onto the hand injury matched, three were misaligned.
Photos of Pam’s other injuries, he found, raised serious doubts that the lesion was a bite at all. In full analysis of the photographic record, Bowers reported two other crescent-shaped injuries on the victim’s arm and right shoulder. Sperber testified at the evidentiary hearing that he never received an underside photo of Pam’s hand to account for the opposite arch. In total, three crescent-shaped injuries were visible on the body. “A single-arch bite mark is rare,” the Project documented in Richards’ petition. “According to Dr. Bowers, because single-arch bite marks are so rare and the odds of one victim sustaining multiple single-arch bite marks are astronomical, it would be unreasonable to consider the injury on Pamela’s right hand dental in origin.”
In addition to his dental credentials, Johansen is also a tool-mark expert. When he enlarged crime scene photos, he determined a number of found objects on the property could’ve created a crescent-shaped injury. The fencing material, he found, was as congruent as Richards’ dentition. In contrast to the three other experts, Johansen compared Richards’ upper arch because he judged it more representative of the injury. He could not include or exclude Richards as the biter.
Whatever the origin of the lesion on the right hand, all four experts agreed that the single poor photo should never have been used at trial.
Pam’s right hand would also produce a severed fingertip with a tuft of blue fibers jammed in the fingernail’s crack. During autopsy, Sheridan testified that he collected Pam’s fingernail scrapings according to protocol “off the tips of the fingers, fingernails, looking for any type of trace evidence, anything that might be adhered to the nails.” No tuft was reported in his autopsy notes. In 2008, Gregonis composed a declaration to address specific issues raised by Richards’ habeas petition. In it, he stated the fibers were first discovered upon stereomicroscopic examination. “Since these fibers were eventually discovered upon a microscopical examination and the fact that there was blood and other debris on the fingertips (Item C-14) it is reasonable to conclude that the fibers would not have been seen with the unaided eye during the autopsy or during the actual severing process.” In the habeas petition, however, the Project indicated that several autopsy photos of Pam’s right hand before and after cleaning showed no tuft.
At Richards’ first trial, Gregonis testified he saw the tuft with his naked eye in the crime lab during his first examination of the severed fingertip.
“Were the blue fibers visible with the naked eye?” Risley asked Gregonis in the third trial.
“Yes, they were.”
When confronted by Stiglitz during the evidentiary hearing about these testimonies versus his later declaration, Gregonis stated that the tuft was visible with the naked eye as well as under his microscope. In retrospect, Gregonis stated he was unsure whether he first inspected the tuft visually or microscopically.
After the autopsy, it became Craig Ogino’s duty to visually and microscopically examine the fingernail scrapings. In addition, when asked about his actions he testified the fingernails themselves were checked for smaller trace evidence. Under stereomicroscopic power, Ogino failed to document any such tuft.
Bowers obtained an autopsy photo showing Pam’s right hand after it was cleaned, before the severing of fingertips. It was a close-up of the fingernail with the purported tuft wedged into a fracture. With Photoshop, Bowers adjusted the image’s color saturation. The enhanced image did not isolate a single blue pixel. Conversely, Bowers performed the same saturation test on a still video image taken from Gregonis’ extraction of the severed fingertip’s tuft. A blue, Z-shaped tuft was visible. Bowers testified he didn’t see the fibers in four autopsy photos he examined. “Considering the size, the amount of material removed or fibers removed from the crime lab at the time of the crime lab examination, I would expect the autopsy photos to have shown blue, but they did not.”
The visual discrepancy between autopsy photography and crime-lab footage led the Project to allege fiber evidence against Richards was planted. “Because of its location in the nail and because the fiber did not appear until Gregonis had access to the fingertips and Petitioner’s denim shirt, there is no innocent explanation for the belated appearance of the fiber.”
“It’s bullshit,” Bradford reacts to the Project’s allegation of planted fibers. “Those types of claims sicken me because I know that shit doesn’t happen here…If there’s actual righteous evidence, things that need to be looked at, we should do that. But for people to make claims of planting evidence….it disgusts me. It’s bullshit.”
Gregonis excised a fiber sample from Richards’ work shirt to compare against the tuft of blue fibers. When his comparison was finished, Gregonis discarded the defendant’s fiber sample. Dr. Patricia Zajac, a former criminalist for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department’s Crime Lab, also testified on Richards’ behalf. In Zajac’s report prepared for the habeas petition, the criminalist stated that unless items are consumed in testing, it is not standard laboratory practice to destroy or discard evidence.
Testimonies in two death penalty cases were cited in the habeas petition to further impugn Gregonis’ credibility. Before Richards’ conviction, Gregonis testified about urine stains found on a homicide victim’s clothing as a serology expert in People v. Coffman and Marlow. In 1989, Gregonis testified that tests to identify the urine source were inconclusive. Consequently, a defendant could not be excluded as a donor of the urine stains. Zajac studied Gregonis’ bench notes, lab results, testimony and a urine-stain report. In her declaration, Zajac concluded that Gregonis’ tests eliminated Marlow as the source of two stains that yielded definitive results, in contradiction to Gregonis’ sworn remarks.
In 1985, prison escapee Kevin Cooper was convicted on four counts of capital murder and one count of attempted murder in the 1983 stabbings of four members of the Ryen family and their houseguest in Chino Hills, California. Only the family’s eight-year-old son survived. Gregonis performed blood work on the case. From death penalty opponents to prominent legal advocates like Alan Dershowitz, Cooper has become a galvanizing symbol of injustice for his supporters. The high-profile case has been steeped in controversy for years.
When the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Cooper’s conviction, Judge William Fletcher, joined by four of his fellow circuit judges, penned a remarkable 101-page dissent in May 2009. In it, Fletcher openly cast doubt on Gregonis’ testimony about bloodstained paint chips, labeled A-41, taken from a wall in the Ryen home. Gregonis’ lab work matched A-41 to Cooper through blood characteristics.
“There is a strong likelihood that the results of the blood tests performed on A-41, presented at trial, were false evidence,” Fletcher wrote. “There is also a strong likelihood that state actors tampered with A-41 to ensure that it would generate inculpatory results when Cooper’s post-conviction DNA testing was conducted in 2002. Gregonis delayed most of his testing of A-41 until he had information about Cooper’s genetic profile – that is, until he knew what he had to match.” In addition to questionable lab practices, Fletcher accused Gregonis of falsifying evidence before scrambling to conceal the wrongdoing. “When the results of Gregonis’s tests on A-41 were initially inconsistent with Cooper’s expert’s results for a known sample of Cooper’s blood, Gregonis altered his lab notes and claimed that he had misinterpreted his results.”
In his May 2008 response to Richards’ habeas petition, Gregonis defended his professional record. “William Richards’ attack on my credibility by reference to my involvement as a criminalist in the capital cases of Kevin Cooper, Cynthia Coffman, and James Marlow is baseless. For the past 23 years Cooper has attempted to reverse the judgment against him by attacking the credibility of those associated with the prosecution of his case. I am unaware of any court that has been convinced by such claims in the cases of Cooper, Coffman, or Marlow.”
As part of Richards’ 1405 motion, in 2006 DNA tests were conducted on the stepping stone wielded against the victim. Unknown male DNA was detected in a mixture of Pam’s blood. Because the greater quantity of DNA belonged to the victim, the male donation was termed the minor component. There were at least two minor donors. Richards’ profile was not consistent with the unknown male DNA. In two places on the stone, one-tenth and one-sixth of the respective DNA mixtures belonged to unknown third parties. In his 1993 case notes, Gregonis isolated three areas as likely candidates to contain a suspect’s DNA. Minor contributions were found in two of his three designated areas.
Court personnel’s handling of the stepping stone, as well as attorneys talking over it, were explanations proposed by Gregonis for the unknown DNA. The People also speculated the male DNA could’ve been deposited at any point before the crime, and it wasn’t attributable to any one person. Other stepping stones that formed the pathway to the motor home were also tested. No unknown DNA was transmitted to these stones. The Project argued that this indicated the bludgeoning stone was relatively free of historical DNA.
“The staining patterns that are on there are definitely consistent with that being one of the items that came into contact with her skull,” Gregonis testified about the stepping stone during the first mistrial. As he described the prosecution’s carrying scenario, he said that Pam was brought outside and “struck at least twice, probably first by the stepping stone.”
“In your opinion,” Risley asked Gregonis in the last mistrial, “the stepping stone was used to strike the victim’s head, as well?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“There was blood spatter and pooled blood on the stepping stone,” Gregonis wrote in his 2008 declaration. “Based on the presence of the pooled blood, there was the possibility that the stepping stone had been used to hit the victim…The evidence clearly pointed to the cinderblock, a different item found at the crime scene, as the murder weapon.” When confronted during the evidentiary hearing, Gregonis conceded there may have been a difference in his prior testimony. “In this statement as part of my testimony it appears that I was more definite, yes,” he told Stiglitz.
In addition to the DNA on the stepping stone, mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, was retrieved from a blonde hair found amongst the victim’s fingernail scrapings. Measuring two centimeters or just under an inch in length, its mtDNA belonged to an unknown third party. Also, the blonde hair had a telogen root. Defined by the mature growth stage of the hair, a telogen root is either ready to fall out or naturally shed. An anogen root is differentiated as a younger, living root.
Ogino, the county criminalist, determined that all the fingernail scrapings taken from Pam were historical, or deposited in the course of daily life. Because the hair had a telogen root, the district attorney argued that it was naturally shed, as opposed to an anogen which is usually forcibly removed. Gialamas did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, but he disagrees with the basic premise that there’s a greater likelihood of finding a hair with an anogen root lodged under a fingernail as the result of a struggle.
“It depends on the struggle and what the issues are,” he says. “It’s very difficult to say…Hairs, even though microscopically small, they’re still a large item to stay under a fingernail. How many times have you just looked under your fingernail and found hair there? Probably not often, rarely if at all. So the fact that it’s even there is an unusual event. So to take an unusual event and make it more unusual than that is a very difficult statistical proposition.”
Zajac had fundamental issues with classifying the hair on the People’s grounds. Most hair collected as evidence has a telogen root, she testified. The type of root had no relevance in her final analysis. Four criteria led Zajac to conclude the hair was non-historical. The length of the hair was such that Pam would likely have noticed and removed it. The crime scene’s location was not a place where one would find a lot of hairs. Hair was found under the fingernail, not simply on its surface, so it would take some kind of action to get it in the place it was found. Lastly, the violent nature of the crime suggested it was deposited during the struggle.
In a post-hearing brief, the Project stated Pam was a woman whose feminine grooming habits were tied to her line of work. “She was a woman who obviously paid attention to her nails – they were painted.” They were also acrylic. “In addition, she was a waitress and was likely not in the habit of serving food with dirty fingernails.” If it was historical, it was argued, the blonde hair would’ve been dislodged as she washed her hands.
No criminal database exists for either the hair’s mtDNA or the stepping stone’s Y-STR DNA profile. Because they have unique profiles, third-party DNA from the stepping stone and hair are incomparable and cannot be narrowed to a single donor. Patrick’s DNA has never been compared against the third-party samples.
In terms of alternate suspects other than Patrick, Hal Smith and Project attorneys were essentially drawing on empty. However, Smith’s first intuition was serial killer Angel Reséndiz.
Known by the infamous moniker the “Railroad Killer,” Reséndiz was a Mexican drifter who targeted residents along train routes across American and Mexican borders. With no fixed abode from the mid-’70s to the late ’90s, in the U.S. alone he hopped freight trains and stole cars from Macon, Georgia, and San Bernardino, California, to St. Louis, Missouri, and Houston, Texas—covering numerous points between. Law enforcement confirmed Reséndiz committed nine murders between August 1997 and June 1999 alone, but he’s been linked to at least 10 more open homicides, as early as the ’80s. However, he was particularly active throughout the ’90s. He was apprehended by a Texas Ranger in 1999, convicted in 2000 for the bludgeoning death of 39-year-old Claudia Benton and executed in 2006 by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.
Pamela Richards’ slaying fit his modus operandi. Reséndiz preyed on random victims by train tracks in rural locales, perpetrated extraordinarily violent killings often with blunt instruments, robbed very little in property, raped sometimes as a secondary motive and fled after overkill during predawn hours. According to news reports, former FBI profiler John Douglas said that early in Reséndiz’s homicidal arc, he inflicted blunt-force trauma with weapons of opportunity found at his crime scenes. Before he was taken into custody on the capital murder charge, he had compiled a lengthy criminal résumé. Pam died on Aug. 10, 1993. In March 2000, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General produced a special report on Reséndiz’s case. It attempted to track the serial killer’s whereabouts through a diverse set of law enforcement records. On June 9, 1993, Reséndiz was arrested after evading police in Carson City, Texas, while operating a vehicle stolen two days earlier in Missouri. He was sentenced to time served on the misdemeanor charge of eluding capture after Missouri authorities declined to extradite for auto theft. It is unknown whether the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported him upon release on July 8, 1993. No other police record is extant until Dec. 7, 1994, when Reséndiz was arrested for operating a stolen vehicle in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The car was stolen a day prior in Arizona.
On Aug. 18, 1995, however, Reséndiz was arrested by railroad police in San Bernardino for trespassing, carrying a loaded firearm and receiving stolen property. Seven days later he was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment. In addition, Reséndiz was the prime suspect in a fatal beating of a transient in a Colton rail yard in July 1997—some 36 miles south of the Richardses’ Hesperia home.
In January 2006, Brooks traveled to Texas to interview Reséndiz on death row. Brooks says that Reséndiz exhibited unmistakable signs of psychosis, and Reséndiz was unsure whether Pam numbered as one of his victims. He said the crime looked like something he would’ve done. Her screen print t-shirt with “Shady Lady” written across the front was disrespectful, he said. And he was well acquainted with Summit Valley, even able to recite train stops throughout the entire region. Reséndiz said that because he was tripping on large quantities of LSD at the time, he couldn’t remember many of his murders.
“After you spent a lot of time [with him],” Brooks recounts, “you realize just how crazy he was. He was just a pure sociopath. He talked about killing one person after the other like he was talking about eating a ham sandwich. So these things weren’t memorable to him because he said he never thought about them 10 minutes later.”
Reséndiz’s dental impressions were collected in October 2005 to reference against Pam’s crescent-shaped lesion on her right hand. The death row inmate could not be excluded as the biter. The Project obtained a DNA sample from him, but he was excluded as a possible donor of tested hairs under Pam’s fingernails. “Some of them [hairs] came back inconclusive and some of them didn’t come back to match,” Simpson explains. “It wasn’t very probative. Since he was in custody, we weren’t really able to get anything more definitive than that.” During the habeas process, the district attorney pointed to these results as emblematic of Richards’ inability to shirk responsibility for his wife’s murder.
At the evidentiary hearing’s onset, Merritt floated the possibility of a plea deal for a lesser charge in exchange for time served. “I talked to Bill about it a number of times and I explained to him that these hearings are a crapshoot,” Stiglitz says. “We thought we had a great case…but you just never know. And if the prosecutor was offering him the opportunity to walk out of prison tomorrow, he ought to be thinking about that.” Richards didn’t blink. “He said, ‘I’ve spent the last several years in prison for a crime I didn’t do, and I’m not going to say I did just to get out of prison.’ That told me all I needed to know.” Yet that wasn’t the first time a plea bargain was presented to Richards. He says he received plea offers in the ’90s for manslaughter and time served. “I would have gone to prison, got a number and been paroled,” he says. Again, it was never a serious consideration. While Risley’s memory is unclear, he says it wouldn’t surprise him if prior to the preliminary hearing or first trial a reduced second-degree charge was proffered. In any event, Richards rejected every plea avenue available.
“When you’re looking at a life term in California,” Smith adds, “punting is always an option you have to look at sincerely. Because life in California means life.”
Near the evidentiary hearing’s midway point, the Project contemplated a prosecutorial misconduct complaint against Risley. According to Stiglitz, Merritt would’ve preferred it had happened sooner. “He wanted to get off the case,” Stiglitz remembers. “He had no interest in litigating this case.” When the prospect of a misconduct claim was formally raised, it was Merritt’s magic bullet to recusal. Despite the fact that the claim was eventually abandoned, on the trial’s fourth day, after the testimony of six forensic experts, new counsel was appointed within the appellate division. Merritt’s defense of Risley would not only have been unpalatable, it presented an inescapable conflict of interest.
According to federal court records, in October 2004 Merritt was served order-of-dismissal papers from the district attorney’s office amid allegations that he leaked two sets of sensitive documents to a local media outlet. One was a death penalty memo, the other contained Merritt’s research into statute-of-limitations laws tied to an open investigation of former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell. The county’s top lawman, Tidwell was accused of pilfering 523 guns from evidence rooms during his tenure from 1983 to 1991. (Later, he would plead guilty in exchange for misdemeanor charges, probation, the return of over 100 weapons and a $10,000 fine.) In a separation report filed with Merritt’s termination paperwork, the prosecutor’s most recent work performance evaluation was marked “exceeds standards.” In fact, Merritt was instrumental in the passage of California’s controversial three-strikes legislation, which he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. Nonetheless, the order enumerated at least six violations. After Merritt’s immediate appeal, the county’s Civil Service Commission sided with the prosecutor, citing deficient grounds for the termination. However, Merritt was not reinstalled as Appellate Services Unit chief. Instead, he was reassigned as a courtroom prosecutor.
Disgruntled with what he considered a demotion, Merritt subsequently sued for wrongful termination in U.S. District Court, naming the county, District Attorney Michael Ramos and Assistant District Attorney Michael Risley in the federal lawsuit. Nine complaints included conspiracy to violate civil rights, wrongful termination, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a September 2006 deposition, Merritt presumed that Risley, with Ramos’ tacit consent, leaked the documents in order to frame Merritt, thereby delivering a coup de grâce to Merritt’s chances of opposing Ramos in the 2006 election for district attorney. Risley, in his own declaration, echoed his office’s position that Merritt bore responsibility for the leaked information. A no-fault settlement was ultimately reached in December 2006, which reinstated Merritt to his old post. County Public Information Officer David Wert quantifies the cost to local taxpayers at $444,303, including $146,403 in outside legal expenses and $297,500 toward Merritt’s settlement package.
In retirement, Risley does not have fond remembrances of Merritt. “We can cut to the chase,” he says. “Grover Merritt thinks I’m a liar. And I think he’s a liar. And that’s the way that it is. He recused himself because he thinks I’m a liar. And he’s entitled to his opinion. I think he’s a liar, and I’m entitled to my opinion.”
In Merritt’s absence, the evidentiary hearing moved forward. Post-hearing briefs were filed. Oral arguments were presented. At the conclusion, Judge McCarville addressed both parties. While the petitioner failed to establish Gregonis either committed perjury or planted evidence, the tuft of blue fibers raised factual concerns in the judge’s mind. But it didn’t tip the scales.
“The Court finds that the evidence with respect to the bite mark analysis and the DNA analysis and the hair analysis has established, taken together, that there was a – that there did exist and does exist a fundamental doubt in my mind as to the accuracy and reliability of the evidence presented at the trial proceeding…The Court finds that the entire prosecution case has been undermined, and that the petitioner has established his burden of proof to show that the evidence before me presents or points unerringly to innocence.”
On Aug. 10, 2009, exactly 16 years to the day after Pamela Richards was murdered, William Richards was exonerated.
“It’s hard to decide what I want to do first,” he pondered from behind bars after McCarville’s decision. “I will probably settle for some good food. Ideally, I would move somewhere that nobody knows all of this and try to build a new life. But it’s unlikely that will happen.”
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.”
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