Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A DNA Exoneration close to home.

An amazing thing happened in my courthouse yesterday: http://blogs.cwsl.edu/news/2009/08/10/california-innocence-project-obtains-reversal-of-12-year-old-murder-conviction/ Here is the text:

"Today, 16 years to the day after the murder of Pamela Richards, San Bernardino County Judge Brian McCarville granted the California Innocence Project’s request to reverse the murder conviction of her husband William Richards. Finding that new evidence points “unerringly to innocence,” Richards’s 1997 conviction of murdering his wife in their Hesperia, Calif., home was thrown out. Richards was convicted for the 1993 murder after two trials ended in hung juries.
The reversal marks the successful conclusion to an eight year-long process. In 2001, Richards contacted the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, a non-profit clinical program in which law professors, lawyers, and law students work to free wrongfully convicted prisoners in California. He maintained his innocence in the murder and sought the Project’s help in requesting a reversal of his conviction.

The California Innocence Project obtained new DNA testing on the murder weapon. Test results revealed that an unidentified male held the murder weapon and struggled with the victim. DNA testing on hair from under the victim’s fingernails also pointed to another person other than Richards. This evidence countered the prosecution’s claim that no one other than Richards or his wife were at their home on the night of the murder.

During the Richards trial, evidence was presented indicating that a “bite mark” on the victim’s hand could have only come from Richards or two percent of the population. However, the testimony provided by the bite mark expert was based on incomplete information and poor photos. Experts obtained by the Project were able to correct the distortion in the photographs and testify that Richards could not have been the person responsible for the “bite mark.”
The California Innocence Project also argued that fiber evidence may have been falsified by someone employed by the County. The prosecution claimed that a tuft of 15 light-blue fibers were found in a tear in the victim’s fingernail. According to the prosecution, the fibers matched those of the shirt Richards was wearing the night of the murder. However, members of the California Innocence Project discovered that photos taken just after the victim’s autopsy clearly showed no such fibers in the fingernail. After the autopsy, the victim’s fingers were severed and sent to a county criminalist for review. Sometime after that, the fibers appeared.

“We have been working on this case almost as long as the California Innocence Project has been in existence,” said Justin Brooks, Professor at California Western and Director of the California Innocence Project. “To say that I’m ecstatic with today’s decision is an understatement. William Richards has been living a nightmare for 16 years. First he had to deal with the murder of his wife and then he had to face his wrongful conviction and incarceration for the crime. What could be worse?”

Jan Stigltiz, Professor at California Western and Co-Director of the California Innocence Project argued successfully in his closing that the case was purely circumstantial.

“Other than the fact that Richards came home and found his wife, there was no evidence linking him to the crime. These cases are hard to win,” said Stiglitz. “But if you get a judge like McCarville who is willing to take a fresh look at the evidence, then wrongful convictions can be corrected.”

Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project is a law school clinical program dedicated to the release of wrongfully convicted inmates and providing an outstanding educational experience for students enrolled in the clinic. The California Innocence Project reviews more than a 1,000 claims from inmates each year and has earned the exoneration of eight wrongfully convicted clients since its inception."

I have only a few notes. First, good job Judge McCarville. It takes courage to make the right ruling, and he clearly made it. Second, how, EXACTLY, did the photos showing that the fiber evidence was fraudulent get found, and why weren't they produced before trial? The key piece of evidence that likely lead the jury to convict was the fiber on the victim's broken fingernail, that was likely from D's shirt. That sounds big to me. There are photos of the V's fingers, cut off after the autopsy, that show the fibers in the broken nail. Pretty damning. But, behold, apparently sometime after the trial the autopsy photos show up, and the autopsy photos show the fingers before they were removed from the body, and there are no fibers in the broken fingernail. In other words, the fiber was not present at the autopsy, but was there AFTER the fingers were cut off and sent to the crime lab. How were those autopsy photos not produced before the trial? Third, How was the DNA missed? Was this a case where the DNA wasn't as reliable as it is now? Was it too expensive?

Finally, how many times will this have to happen for everyone else to realize that our criminal justice system is badly broken? How many guys are out there who didn't get their case before a decent judge? Who didn't have DNA evidence to "prove" that they were wrongly convicted? William Richards is lucky that the California Innocence project exists, that they took an interest in his case, and that they worked their asses off for him. Too many times, I am certain, the wrong guy gets convicted because everyone is in a foul mood about the crime, the defense attorney is not on the ball or is overworked, the DA is focused solely on convicting the guy rather than doing what is right, the police are too interested in closing their books to investiagte properly, and the judge is too focused on making sure the DA gets a fair trial, rather than the D. The juries are made up of ordinary, but usually conservative, people who want to do "justice," rather than follow the law. Reasonable doubt gets forgotten in the shuffle. In other words, the entire system evades accountability because no one is actually accountable. And even if the right guy does get convicted, when corners are cut, we lose any sense of certainty that we are, in fact, being just in punishing this person. That isn't right.

I know that our system is not perfect. But we should not have such drastic sentences, and certainly should not have the death penalty, when there is so much uncertainty and unfairness in our system. I wouldn't want to treat those accused of crime any worse than I would expect to be treated if I were accused. William Richards got screwed, and it is our fault.

What are we going to do about it?

Dennis R. Wilkins
The Guest Blogger


Family Law Attorney said...

What a wonderful and tragic account of a trial, and a great analysis of why proper and thorough litigation is important regardless of the case being discussed. The willingness of some attorneys and judges to cut corners just to get a conviction is frightening; hopefully more cases like this will come to light and serve to expose this tendency of certain law professionals.

Lucy Frost said...

There is a growing group of people -- most of us friends, family, and supporters of wrongly convicted -- who are joining together to raise awareness and press for legislative and judicial action. We organized a march on June 27 -- people marched on capitals in 18 states. A non-profit org is in the works -- for now, join us at www.freedommarchusa.org.

With over 2.3 million in prison, and expert estimates of 3 to 12% of all convictions being wrong, there are over 100,000 wrongly convicted in prison. No wonder the innocence projects are overwhelmed with requests for help.

Matt said...

Agreed....One of the most important goals in this legal system is fairness. Making sentences fair...neither too lienient nor too harsh, is crucial.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might want to hear about a case recently reported in our local paper. Illegal immigrant is charged with raping his 12yr.old daughter (this is in Valley County, Idaho- pop.9,000). Should be pretty easy, but it's a hung jury. Why? ineffective counsel. According to the prosecutor (The Long Valley Advocate, Volume 25, N0.23)"three jurors didn't want to find (Abacara) guilty because they didn't think he got a fair trial". The PD had been pulled over following court and could not remember what had happened that day...Bravo to the jurors- but what about the judge and the prosecutor? The prosecutor states that when you listen to the recordings "it's apparent that Mr.Wilcox (the PD)was not fully aware of what was going on" and goes on to say that jurors corrected the defense aloud in court when he misstated. My understanding was that all officers of the court have an obligation to insure a fair trial...but, it reminds us of the power of an awake jury!

Dennis Wilkins said...

FYI - I had to delete a number of posts. It had nothing to do with any offensive content or anything like that - it's just that they were obviously spam advertisements for stuff.

Please make sure to read my follow-up to this past, dated 5-24-10, talking about Mr. Williams. He's still in jail, and he is being treated for cancer. The appellate court has not decided whether Judge McCarville had the power to do what he did.

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