William Richards, whose conviction for killing his wife Pamela in 1993 was overturned in 2016 after 23 years of imprisonment, can pursue his case against San Bernardino County and sheriff’s lab technician Daniel Gregonis, who he claimed planted evidence against him.
A June 24 Ninth Circuit ruling partially reversed the Sept. 20, 2019, dismissal of his case by Central District of California Judge S. James Otero.
According to the Ninth Circuit ruling and Richards’ complaint, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy responding to a call found Pamela Richards’ body in the couple’s remote Mojave Desert motor home at 12:38 a.m., Aug. 10, 1993.
William Richards is featured on the California Innocence Project's website. Read about their involvement here: https://californiainnocenceproject.org/read-their-stories/william-richards/
William Richards told the deputy he had found Pamela’s body lying face down on the ground after he returned from his work as a mechanical engineer.
Pamela’s skull was crushed, and an autopsy found Pamela had died from strangulation. The killer beat Pamela with rocks, manually strangled her, and crushed her skull with a cinder block, according to Richards’ complaint.
Richards claimed Gregonis planted fibers from Richards’ blue shirt under Pamela’s fingers during the investigation.
No one had noticed blue fibers under Pamela’s fingers prior to Gregonis recording his finding of them, even during the autopsy and a medical examination.
Richards was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder Sept. 3, 1993.
After two hung juries, one mistrial and a fourth prosecution, Richards was convicted in 1997. To seal the conviction, the prosecution used bitemark evidence. The county odontologist testified that Richards’ dental records matched a bruise on Pamela’s right hand.
The odontologist took back his testimony in 2007, after using a computer to enhance the bruise.
Richards petitioned for his conviction to be overturned in 2007, because the evidence against him was recanted.
The San Bernardino Superior Court granted Richards’ petition, but the California Supreme Court overruled it.
After the California Legislature updated its definition of false evidence to include recanted expert opinions, Richards brought a second petition to overturn his conviction, which the California Supreme Court granted in 2016.
Richards sues county
Richards brought his suit against sheriff’s department employees and the county March 16, 2017. His third amended complaint claimed violations of his civil rights.
“Plainly speaking, the misconduct of Defendants led to an innocent man being convicted of murdering his wife,” his complaint reads. “There can be no worse conduct of a police agency and its officers when it engages in such misconduct leading to an innocent man not only being wrongfully imprisoned but stigmatized with the false and defamatory label that he killed his wife”
His complaint claims the sheriff’s deputies had botched the investigation by waiting three hours to investigate the crime scene, allowing Richards’ dogs to partially bury Pamela, not investigating certain facts around the crime scene and by not fingerprinting the rocks used to attack Pamela.
He also claimed the prosecution elicited fabricated testimony, and that it was unreasonable to believe he had committed the murder in the eight minutes between his arrival back home from work and the time he answered a phone call at the crime scene. Finally, he argued that Gregonis planted the evidence of his shirt in his wife’s fingers.
Case dismissal overturned
California Central District Judge S. James Otero dismissed Richards’ case against Gregonis Sept. 20, 2019, for three reasons, all of which the Ninth Circuit disagreed with.
Otero maintained the defendant’s motion that Richards needed to prove Gregonis had a motive to manipulate the evidence. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.
“While motive is recognized as potentially strong circumstantial evidence in support of a claim of fabrication, see Caldwell, 889 F.3d at 1112, motive evidence is never required, see id. at 1113,” the court wrote.
Otero claimed that more plausible explanations for the late discovery of the blue fibers existed. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the court overstepped by weighing the evidence when dismissing a case.
“[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial,” the court wrote.
Otero also dismissed the case on the claim that Richards was convicted on the since overturned bite mark evidence, not the blue fiber. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with his test, and established that a plaintiff’s due process right to a fair trial should not be dependent on proving that he would have won in trial if the evidence had not been fabricated.
“The deliberate fabrication of evidence implicates a plaintiff’s fundamental right to a fair trial,” the court wrote.
Some of suit still dismissed
In a separate, unpublished memorandum, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Otero that some of Richards’ claims should be dismissed.
He cannot establish a claim against Gregonis for a blood spatter analysis, because the analysis was vetted by the jury at the testimony of experts.
He also cannot pursue a claim against the odontologist for fabrication of evidence, because the evidence was not fabricated, it was simply incorrect.
He cannot establish a claim for fabrication of evidence against a sheriff’s deputy because witnesses are immune from liability for trial testimony, or against a homicide detective who tested the time it takes to drive from Richards’ work to his house, because he could not show that the detective deliberately falsified the test.
He also could not bring some claims against two homicide detectives, because he did not distinctly address those claims in his opening brief.
Richards’ argument that law enforcement violated his right to a fair trial by being reckless in their investigation was also dismissed, because a reckless investigation is not enough to state a civil rights claim.
The court also upheld the dismissal of multiple arguments that defendants violated his constitutional rights by suppressing and failing to disclose evidence.
Kristina Strottman and Susan E. Coleman of Los Angeles’ Burke Williams and Sorensen represent the county, Gregonis and other defendants.
Ninth Circuit Justice Richard Tallman wrote the opinion, joined by Justice Kenneth Lee and Kermit Lipez, United States Circuit Judge for the First Circuit, sitting by designation.
Case number 5:17-cv-00497.
Appellate case number 19-56205.
Read Richards’ complaint here.
Read the defendants’ motion for summary judgment here.
Read the unpublished memorandum here.
Read the published opinion here.
Photo of Richards eating fries and ribs after his release from prison submitted by the California Innocence Project, which represented him as he petitioned for his release.