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California Law Allows Appeals for Recanted Expert Witness Testimony

A murder case in California has prompted a new state law that allows courts to consider re-trials if an expert witness repudiates his testimony after a conviction.  William Richards, convicted of the 1993 murder of his wife Pamela on the strength of a bite-mark expert, will get a chance to have his case reviewed by the California Supreme Court after the state’s expert witness law went into effect last month.

Expert Witness Aids 1993 Murder Conviction

In 1993, Pamela Richards was strangled and had her skull crushed in what was a clear murder.  Investigators built a case against her husband, William, based in part on a bite mark on the victim’s hand.  The bite mark was identified as William Richards’ based on testimony by Norman Sperber, a well-known forensic dentist in San Diego who had contributed to conviction of serial killer Ted Bundy by identifying bite-marks on his victims.  During Richards’ 1997 trial, Sperber testified that only 2 out of 100 people would have the defendant’s unusual tooth feature that appeared in the bite-mark on Pamela’s hand.

After the conviction, upon reviewing a clearer photo, Sperber claimed that Richards’ teeth were actually not consistent with the mark on his wife’s hand, suggesting that he was not the cause of the wound.  In 2012, the California State Supreme Court affirmed Richards’ conviction stating that a change in expert witness testimony did not necessarily set grounds for vacating it.  Finding that an expert’s testimony must be “objectively untrue,” something not demonstrated in the Richards’ case because no counter-experts reputed Sperber’s claim, the Court declined to overturn his conviction on appeal.

California Law Allows Appeals on Repudiated Expert Testimony

After the State Supreme Court denied Richards’ appeal, the California legislature went into action crafting a bill that would allow courts to strongly weigh repudiation of expert witness testimony, even if the expert was not directly contradicted during or after the trial.  The result was a new law that states expert testimony which has been recanted will be treated as false evidence, and, if the defendant can show it was key to the conviction, the repudiated testimony will serve as strong grounds for the conviction to be overturned.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School explained the need for such a law, “More and more, experts are reconsidering their opinion not because they have pangs of guilt, but because in fact the science changes. You want a legal system that recognizes that reality.”  The California law, signed into effect by the Governor this January, allows courts to take into account the fact that expert witnesses may recant testimony after trial when considering appeals, giving attorneys fighting to overturn convictions an option when key experts change their testimony.

The passage of the law may give William Richards another chance to overturn his conviction after more than 25 years in prison, and will also open the doors for other defendants whose convictions turned on experts who later recanted what was said during trial.