New Evidence Law Giving Hope to the Innocent

A new California law is giving new hope to those in prison who have been wrongly convicted, in part, by expert testimony.

The amendment to California Penal Code 1473 was passed in September of 2014, signed into law, and took effect in January of this year. The new law should make it easier for a defendant to get a conviction overturned when an expert repudiates his or her testimony.

Experts may repudiate their testimony for a variety of reasons, primarily because the science or knowledge changes. Under the old law, when an expert repudiated his testimony, courts did not treat it as “false evidence” as they do when an eyewitness recants testimony, and it was not necessarily a ground for the conviction to be overturned. Under California law, if false evidence is key to the person’s alleged guilt, the court has the authority to overturn the conviction. Thus, the new law allows for a conviction to be overturned when an expert repudiates testimony that was key to the person’s conviction.

The change may help the individual whose case prompted it in the first place. In the summer of 1993, Pamela Richards was strangled and he skull was smashed. Her husband, William Richards, was convicted of first-degree murder by a California jury.

One of the primary pieces of evidence against Richards came from Norman Sperper’s, a forensic dentist, expert testimony that a mark on Pamela’s hand was consistent with Richard’s teeth. The expert recanted his testimony years later, saying he was no longer sure that the mark was actually a bite.

A judge overturned Richards’ conviction, but a California appeals court reinstated it. Richards appealed and in 2012, a divided California Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court, stating that a change in expert testimony does not necessarily make the testimony false and thus is not a ground to vacate a conviction. The court stated that the testimony must be “objectively untrue.” Even though bite-mark testimony has been slammed as sham science by some experts and defense attorneys, the court said that original testimony was not objectively false because other experts did not definitively rule out the possibility that the marks could be bite marks from Richards.

Richards, who has spent over 20 years in prison and maintains his innocence, and his attorneys are hoping that the new law will prompt the California Supreme Court to reconsider his case.

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