Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bite marks highlighted in bid to overturn murder conviction

January 26, 2009

Mike Cruz-Contra Costa Times-Walnut Creek, CA

A pair of forensic dentistry experts say apparent bite marks found on a Summit Valley woman brutally killed at her home in 1997 do not belong to her husband.

The experts' testimony before a Superior Court judge on Monday contradicts opinions they gave more than 10 years earlier during a trial where a High Desert jury convicted William Joseph Richards.

Lawyers for the California Innocence Project called the experts to testify on behalf of Richards in a bid to get his conviction in the death of his wife, Pamela Richards, overturned in San Bernardino Superior Court.

"I think we have someone who has been a victim of a wrongful conviction," said Jan Stiglitz, a lawyer with the Innocence Project who filed for a Writ of Habeas Corpus on behalf of Richards.

After three mistrials in Superior Court, two of which resulted in hung juries, Richards was convicted of first-degree murder in July 1997.

Forensic dentist Dr. Norman Sperber said he testified in 1997 that a lesion on the victim's right hand, between her thumb and forefinger, was consistent with Richards' lower jaw.

Sperber said he originally believed features of the wound matched Richards teeth. But on Monday, Sperber criticized a forensic photograph taken of the wound as being "unreliable and inaccurate," because of angular distortion and positioning of a ruler in the image.

Sperber now has a different conclusion.

"My opinion today is his teeth are not consistent with the lesion on the hand," said Sperber, who has testified as an expert during trials for convicted serial murderers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.

On cross-examination from Deputy District Attorney Grover Merritt, Sperber acknowledged that he recognized back in 1997 that the photo of the hand was distorted, and he did not ask prosecutors to see more.

Gregory Golden, a San Bernardino County special deputy coroner, testified Monday that the bite mark has possible features of a dog bite and that Richards' lineup of teeth does not match up with the injury.

"I would tend to rule out Mr. Richards as a suspect," Golden said.

The 40-year-old victim had been beaten with fist-sized rocks, according to the project's petition. She was then strangled, and her skull was crushed with a stepping stone and cinder block.

The project's petition says DNA evidence taken from under Pamela Richards' fingernails exonerates her husband and points to a third party. DNA evidence also shows someone else held the murder weapon.

Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday.

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