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Decades-Old Murder Conviction Reversed Due to Work by California Innocence Project

CIP co-founder Jan Stiglitz

William Richards has spent more than two decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Today, he is infinitely closer to becoming a free man—thanks to the tireless efforts of the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law.

Richards, now 66, was convicted in 1993 for the death of his wife. That conviction was finally overturned on May 26 in a unanimous opinion published by the California Supreme Court. The decision came down after CIP attorneys presented new DNA evidence showing another person’s DNA on the murder weapon and under the victim's fingernails, and after the key prosecution witness recanted testimony implicating Richards.

"It has taken far too long, but now the highest court in California has acknowledged that William Richards' conviction must be thrown own because it was based on false evidence,” says Professor Jan Stiglitz, co-founder of the California Innocence Project. “Given that we have documented the existence of DNA not belonging to Richards on both the murder weapon and under the victim’s fingernail, we hope that the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office will also recognize that it prosecuted the wrong person and will not seek to retry Richards for a crime he did not commit."

The California Innocence Project has been working on Richards’ case since the organization's inception in 1999. In 2001, CIP lawyers requested DNA testing on items of evidence that were never tested at the time of trial. Those DNA test results revealed an unknown male DNA profile on the murder weapon and hair under the victim’s fingernails.

Richards’s case took another turn in 2007 after the star prosecution witness recanted his expert testimony that Richards had to have committed the crime because his dentition matched a bite mark found on the victim’s body. The witness stated that he never should have testified Richards was a match and that in his professional opinion—based on further review and recent technological advancements in forensic sciences—not only was the mark not left by Richards, it may not have been a bite mark all along.

In reversing the conviction, the California Supreme Court noted that the case against Richards at the time of trial was entirely based on circumstantial evidence, and much of that evidence was heavily contested.

The resolution of the case came about after the California Innocence Project secured federal funding through the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal-OES) to look into and litigate cases involving DNA. DNA has become the gold standard for forensic evidence, and this funding has allowed CIP to bring innocence cases like Richards' to light.

To learn more about the California Innocence Project, visit www.cwsl.edu/cip.