Divided State Supreme Court Closes Door On Richards’ Request For New Trial

(December 14)   On December 3, the California Supreme Court closed out another but not the final chapter in the troubling matter of William Richards with a closely divided decision that did not put the controversy attending the case fully to rest. Ruling 4-3, California’s highest court upheld Richard’s 1997 conviction for the 1993 murder of his wife, Pamela.
There has been little about the Richards case that is clearly cut, other than that Pamela Richards was murdered and the entire circumstance lacks clarity.
The Richards case was beset with a myriad of difficulties from the outset, which in and of themselves resulted in three mistrials. It was only upon the prosecution’s fourth attempt that a unanimous vote to convict him was obtained. Then, while Richards was serving his 25-years-to-life sentence, further information emerged which cast, according to San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville, grave doubt upon his guilt, his conviction and the validity of much of the evidence used to obtain that conviction, exacerbated by evidence that indicated the presence of a person or persons unknown at the murder scene.
Then-deputy district attorney Mike Risley prosecuted Richards each time.
Richards’ story did not change from trial to trial.
He claimed he had returned the evening of August 10, 1993 from his machinist’s job in Corona at about 11:50 p.m. to find the motor home in which he and his wife lived on the five-acre Summit Valley property they owned dark and empty. The couple was living in the motor home  while efforts to construct a house on the property were ongoing. He went to look for his wife and found her dead in a pool of blood on another part of their property between the motor home and the Santa Fe railroad line.
He claimed he turned his wife’s body over and cradled her before summoning assistance.
In each of his prosecutions of William Richards, Risley suggested there was strife in the Richards’ 22-year long marriage. He put on an expert witness who testified that splatters of Pamela Richards’ blood that were found on William Richards’ shoes and clothes were tell-tale evidence indicating William Richards had wielded the cinder block used to crush his wife’s head.
Risley marshaled further evidence, accumulated by sheriff’s deputies and detectives, showing no car tracks or footprints other than those of Richards, his wife or the detectives and deputies or their vehicles were present on the property.
Risley displayed for jurors a “bite mark” on Pamela Richards’ hand and then followed that up with testimony from a forensic expert who claimed that by his analysis the bite could have only come from two percent of the population, including Richards, who had a certain peculiarity to their teeth.
The coup-de-grace was a tuft of 15 light-blue fibers found in a tear in the victim’s fingernail. According to Risley, the fibers matched those of the shirt Richards was wearing the night of the murder.
The first of the four times Richards was to be tried, the judge declared a mistrial before the matter was presented to a jury. In 1994, the first time the case went the distance, a jury deadlocked 6-6. A second full trial netted a 10-2 verdict for conviction. On the last complete go-round, he was convicted.
As in the first two complete trials, the third jury to hear the entire case reported that it too was deadlocked after seven full days of deliberation. The jurors, encouraged to return to deliberations, delivered a unanimous guilty verdict on the eighth day.
Richards has been imprisoned ever since.
Among those passionately inveighing against the verdict was Pamela Richards’ sister, Kathy Olejnik. Olejnik went to her grave in 2003 swearing her brother-in-law did not murder her sister, leaving behind multiple notarized affidavits asserting her conviction “that William Richards did not kill or murder my sister.”
There exists an accumulation of evidence that suggests Olejnik had solid ground for her belief.
Beginning in 1986 and continuing until 1999, a rash of murders had taken place around the country, now known or in large part proven to have been committed by a man identified as Angel Maturino Reséndiz, who was also known as Rafael Reséndiz-Ramirez, Angel Reyes Reséndiz and Angel Leoncio Reyes Recéndis, as well as the Railway Killer.
In the early stages of his murderous career, Reséndiz, a native of Mexico who continuously made undocumented trips between Mexico, the United States and Canada by riding the rails while using over twenty aliases and at least fifteen social security numbers, was not remarked upon by authorities or identified as the culprit. It was only in the final two years of his thirteen-year-long murder spree that suspicion coalesced around the entity dubbed the Railway Killer. Even after he was identified by Texas and federal authorities and placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list in 1999, his itinerant lifestyle and his use of aliases allowed him to elude capture.
In July 1999, Reséndiz was apparently willingly lured into capture by Texas Rangers and FBI agents who negotiated his surrender through the intercession of his sister.
With a few exceptions, the murders Reséndiz committed fit within the same pattern. The victims lived or were found within a short distance of a railroad line and were killed by being beaten over the head with a rock or heavy object available at the scene. His primary motive appears to have been to steal money he used to purchase alcohol, drugs or gasoline to fuel vehicles he stole. He raped some, but not all of his female victims.
His known victims included:
* Christopher Maier, a 21-year-old University of Kentucky student who was walking along nearby railroad tracks with his girlfriend, Holly K. Dunn, on August 29, 1997 when they were set upon by Reséndiz, who bludgeoned Maier to death and then raped and severely beat Dunn, who survived the attack.
* Leafie Mason, an 81-year-old resident of Hughes Springs, Texas who resided 150 feet from the Kansas City-Southern Line. On October 4, 1998, Reséndiz let himself into her home through a window and used a tire iron to beat Mason to death.
* Dr. Claudia Benton, a 39-year-old pediatric neurologist at the Baylor College of Medicine who on December 17, 1998 was raped, stabbed and bludgeoned in her West University Palace, Texas home, which is proximate to the train tracks. Reséndiz then used Benton’s Jeep Cherokee to drive to San Antonio. Police recovered his fingerprints from the Jeep’s steering column.
* The Reverend Norman Sirnic, 46, and his wife, Karen Sirnic, 47, were bludgeoned to death by a sledgehammer-wielding Reséndiz in the parsonage of the United Church of Christ in Weimer, Texas on May 2, 1999. The parsonage was located near the Weimer railroad tracks. Reséndiz then used the couple’s Mazda to drive to San Antonio, where it was eventually found by authorities, who recovered Reséndiz’s fingerprints in it.
* Noemi Dominguez, a 26-year-old school teacher, bludgeoned inside her Houston, Texas apartment, located within short walking distance of the rail tracks, on June 4, 1999. On June 11, Dominguez’s Honda Civic was discovered by state troopers in a parking lot next to the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
* Josephine Konvicka, a 73-year-old woman living in Fayette County, Texas was killed on the same day that Noemi Dominguez was killed, June 4, 1999. Konvicka’s farmhouse was located near the railroad tracks by Weimar, Texas. Konvicka was killed while she was asleep by means of a blow to the head from a pointed garden tool. Reséndiz’s attempt to steal Konvicka’s car failed, apparently because he was unable to locate the keys.
* George Morber, 80, and Carolyn Frederick, 52, were killed on June 15, 1999 by Reséndiz, who shot Morber in the head with a shotgun and then clubbed Frederick to death. Their home in Gorham, Illinois was located only 300 feet from a railroad line. Reséndiz took Frederick’s pickup truck and was seen driving it in Cairo, Illinois a short time later.
* Jesse Howell, 19, whom Reséndiz bludgeoned to death with an air hose coupling and left beside the railroad tracks in Ocala, Florida on March 23, 1997.
* Wendy Von Huben, Howell’s 16-year-old girlfriend, whom Reséndiz then raped, strangled and suffocated, also on March 23, 1997. Her body was not found until July 2000 when Reséndiz led investigators to a shallow grave in Sumter County, roughly 30 miles away from the spot where Howell had been killed.
* Michael White was found shot to death in July 1991 in the yard of a vacant home in San Antonio, Texas. When San Antonio police interviewed Reséndiz in 2006, he provided investigators with details about the murder.
By the middle of 2002, Reséndiz had recounted to investigators details of about 20 killings since 1986, though the investigations of only 12 of those have been officially closed out with his identification as the perpetrator. According to Texas authorities, Reséndiz provided details about eight murders he had not previously been associated with, including three in Texas and two in California.
Two of the Texas murders remain unverified but a third is considered to be the shooting death of an unidentified woman in Bexar County in 1986.
Reséndiz indicated he had killed two people in Southern California in the early and mid-1990s: a man near San Bernardino and a woman up in the desert.
Detectives with the Colton Police Department believe Reséndiz is the “likely” perpetrator of the 1997 death of a man beaten to death in the Southern Pacific rail yard in Colton, which is the city lying immediately to the west of San Bernardino.
One of Reséndiz’s arrests came on August 19, 1995 by Santa Fe Railroad police in San Bernardino on trespassing and possession of a firearm charges.
The murder Reséndiz claimed to have perpetrated in the California desert matches in all respects the circumstances of Pamela Richards’ murder.
At the time of William Richards’ trials however, Reséndiz was not a consideration to Richards, his attorneys, the prosecutors, or the judge hearing Richards’ case. Jurors never heard a word about the Railway Killer, and were instead faced with Richards’ explanation of arriving home near midnight to find his wife dead, with no plausible explanation as to an alternate suspect or motive on the part of anyone else.
Risley fortified his case by presenting evidence that the Richards’ marriage was a financially challenged and tempestuous one. Risley presented evidence that Pamela Richards was having an extramarital affair with a man, Eugene Price, who had called the motor home the night of the murder in response to a message Pamela Richards had left on Price’s answering machine. Risley further offered jurors testimony from Pamela’s coworkers that she on occasion came to work with bruises on her face which she tried to mask with makeup and that she had expressed fear of her husband and his temper. Risley who was also able to take advantage of the opportunity to hone his presentation and jury selection across four jury panels, pressed on relentlessly against Richards, whose financial resources and ability to employ a trial attorney were depleted after the first trial that went before a jury.
A key problem with the case put on against Richards was that the investigation of the crime scene had been compromised before forensic investigators arrived because the sheriff’s personnel who initially responded to the call failed to secure it at all during the early morning of August 11, 1993 in the immediate hours after the murder occurred, leaving Pamela Richards’ body out in the open, which resulted in several wild dogs and coyotes molesting her corpse and partially burying it.
In 2003, the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego took up Richards’ cause. By that time, however, Risley through his political alliance with Mike Ramos had risen to the position of assistant district attorney, the second most powerful member of the prosecutor’s office in San Bernardino County. San Bernardino County prosecutors consistently opposed all requests for testing or the reexamination of evidence in the case.
While in custody, however, Reséndiz was questioned by attorneys associated with the California Innocence Project. During the time Risley was still assistant district attorney and no new trial for Richards was in the offing, Reséndiz was executed by the state of Texas on June 27, 2006.
Prior to his death, Reséndiz and Texas authorities consented to Reséndiz providing a DNA sample. Authorization for that sample was given by San Bernardino County judge Margaret Powers at the behest of the California Innocence Project and over the objection of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office.
Tests were requested on bloody objects from the murder scene and on fingernail scrapings taken from Pamela Richards that may have contained blood, tissue and hair samples.
In June 2007, the 46-year-old Risley retired from the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Oxford, Mississippi. He has since relocated to Florida.
In August 2007, four attorneys working with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego – Alex Simpson, Jan Stiglitz, Justin Brooks and Mario Conte – and their organization pressed forward with the previously stymied effort to obtain a new trial for Richards.
Countering Risley’s claims, the Innocence Project utilized the DNA testing on the cinder block and a hair found under Pamela Richards’ fingernail to show that William Richards was not the only person at the crime scene that night and someone other than Richards held the murder weapon and struggled with the victim. This undermined entirely, Stiglitz and Brooks asserted, Risley’s claims to all three juries that Richards was the only person at the scene. They entered into the record the presence of numerous defensive wounds that did not contain Pamela Richard’s husband’s DNA, along with the presence of  unknown male DNA under her fingernails and on the murder weapon.
The Innocence Project has also shed doubt on the bite mark evidence Risley relied upon in convincing the jury that Richards murdered his wife.
At the 1997 trial, Risley brought in forensic experts to tell the jury that a “bite mark” on Pamela Richards’ hand could only have come from William Richards and two percent of the population. The Innocence Project demonstrated that Risley had provided prosecution and defense experts with incomplete information and poor photos of the injury and withheld other exculpatory evidence. The more comprehensive evidence demonstrated the “bite mark” was similar to other injuries on Pamela Richards’ body and the shape of the injury matched tools found at the crime scene.
In January 2009 two of the dental forensic experts that had testified for the prosecution during Richards’ 1997 trial were subpoenaed to testify in a hearing before Judge Brian McCarville and acknowledged the testimony they gave at trial was “scientifically inaccurate.” Both testified that Richards could not have made the alleged bite mark on the victim. A third dental expert testified that Richards was not a match and that the mark found on the body might not have been a bite mark. A fourth forensic expert asserted that if the wound on the victim’s hand was a bite mark, it could not have been made by Richards. He also questioned whether the wound was even a bite mark.
The Innocence Project was further able to discredit what was perhaps the most crucial piece of evidence used by Risley to convict Richards, the tuft of fibers lodged into one of Pamela Richard’s fingernails. The Innocence Project attorneys introduced evidence to indicate the fibers were planted into Pamela Richard’s fingernail during the process of the criminal investigation or otherwise ended up there by some form of gross mishandling of the evidence.
Risley used the tuft, consisting of 15 light-blue fibers said to match the shirt Richards was wearing that fateful night and found in a crack in Pamela Richards’ fingernail, to place William Richards at the scene.
Photos of Pamela’s body taken just after the autopsy clearly show no fibers present in the crack in her fingernail. Days later, when several of her fingers were severed and delivered to criminalist Daniel Gregonis for tests, Gregonis made a video which shows him removing a rather large light-blue fiber from Pamela’s nail. “That fiber evidence was critical to Richards’ conviction and it was not present on Pamela’s fingernail when it was initially examined,” Brooks told McCarville.
In response to the Innocence Project’s presentation and request to throw out Richards’ 1997 conviction, McCarville on August 10, 2009, sixteen years to the day after the murder of Pamela Richards, found that the new evidence pointed “unerringly to innocence” and he granted the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the vacation of the conviction and a new trial.
The district attorney’s office, however, appealed McCarville’s decision, such that the matter for the last three years  and three months has wended through the appellate system, ultimately being lodged with the California Supreme Court. California’s highest court found the case every bit as difficult as had those forums which previously considered the evidence. Three of the State Supreme Court’s members found the Innocence Project’s arguments compelling and persuasive, determining that Richards’ conviction was based on faulty or erroneous information, testimony, evidence or presentation of that evidence. The  other four members of the court, however, signed an opinion that “the petitioner has failed to establish that any of the evidence offered at his 1997 trial was false” and further that “his newly discovered evidence does not ‘point unerringly to innocence or reduced culpability.’” The prevailing opinion held that even if technological advances did cast doubt on the validity of the expert testimony provided in 1997, the testimony still “has not been shown to be false evidence.” Since the defense did not reach the threshold of proving that the evidence used to convict Richards was “false,” the court majority reasoned, the new evidence did not reach the point of “unerringly” indicating innocence, and the habeas corpus relief should therefore not be granted.
This divided ruling upheld the murder conviction. Had the Supreme Court sided with Richards, now 63, he would have been the first convicted murderer in California to be freed through the California Innocence Project’s efforts.
Thus, Richards remains imprisoned at the state penitentiary in Tehachapi, officially convicted of the murder of his wife. Nevertheless, the record with regard to the entire matter protrudes as a deeply troubling one which has left legal minds, such as McCarville’s and those of three of the members of California’s highest court, less than convinced of a convicted man’s guilt.
And there are the chilling words of Angel Maturino Reséndiz himself, who in seemingly deprecating remarks about the fallibility of the legal system in a letter to Texas State District Judge William Harmon in July 2001 appears to be stoking the fire of doubt from the grave.
In that letter, Reséndiz stated to Harmon “So now you . . . will think as you go to sleep, `Have I sentence[d] to death an innocent person for one of Reséndiz Angel Maturino’s killings?’”

Leave a Reply