The panel finds that there is a matter of factual evidence of the allegation that evidence was tendered leading to the conviction of the defendant for the first degree murder of his wife; Spent 18 years in prison before habeas waiver was granted
By a MetNews writer
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated a lawsuit by a man who was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife and spent 18 years in prison before being released by order of the Supreme Court of California, with a three-judge panel. stating that a district court judge wrongly granted summary judgment in favor of a Sheriff’s Department criminologist who the plaintiff alleges has filed false evidence against him.
Claims against San Bernardino County have also been revived.
The plaintiff is William J. Richards. He was found guilty by a jury on July 8, 1997 of murdering his wife on August 10, 1993.
This conviction came during his fourth trial. The first two trials ended in hung juries, and in the third trial the judge recused herself shortly after the proceedings began and declared the trial a mistrial.
At the first two trials, evidence was presented that threads from Richards’ blue shirt had been found by the criminologist, Daniel Gregonis, under the victim’s fingernails. In the fourth trial, bite evidence was also introduced.
It was the unreliability of biting evidence that prompted the California Supreme Court on May 26, 2016 – applying a new statutory definition of “false evidence” – to grant Richards’ second motion for a writ of hakeas corpus, in an opinion from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. (It was the state High Court’s denial of his first petition in 2012 that triggered the legislative redefinition.)
He was released on June 21, 2016.
Richards was later found by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville to be factually innocent, leading the state in 2021 to $1.2 million for the “erroneous 8,328 days of incarceration,” including including a prison sentence before his conviction. In granting summary judgment in favor of Gregonis, District Court Judge James Otero for the Central District of California said, “Plaintiff does not bear his burden to show that the planting of blue fibers on the victim’s body resulted in his condemnation.”
Noting that two juries, lacking such evidence, failed to convict Richards, he said:
“The logical conclusion from this is that the bite mark evidence, not the blue fiber evidence, was necessary to convict the plaintiff.”
He quoted California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan as saying in her opinion that she agreed with granting habeas relief:
“[T]The fact that two previous juries were hung without the bite mark evidence further suggests that the admission of this evidence at the third trial was prejudicial, and I join the court in concluding that Richards’ conviction should be overturned. . Otero also observed that Richards “is unable to point to facts that show that Mr. Gregonis had a motive to deliberately manipulate the evidence to convict the plaintiff.”
Ninth Circuit Notice
The Ninth Circuit, in Senior Judge Richard C. Tallman’s Friday opinion, acknowledged that “uncausal proof of causation regarding the blue fiber evidence cannot easily be made here” and that ” one could more easily say that the false bite evidence, not the blue fiber evidence, was the primary cause of Richards’ conviction.
But the proper standard to apply — in order to “enforce Richards’ fundamental right to a fair trial” — is whether the alleged false evidence was “real” evidence.
“We therefore believe that Richards can establish factual causation if he can demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that the allegedly fabricated blue fiber evidence could have affected the jury’s judgment,” Tallman wrote, adding:
“The district court did not apply this standard. Instead, the court’s decision on causation took an inappropriate leap from its finding that the false bite testimony was a necessary cause of Richards’ conviction to be its sole cause. Because Richards has shown a trialable issue as to whether Gregonis deliberately planted the blue fibers on Pamela’s body, … we are reversing and remanding to the district court to reevaluate, in light of this notice, if there is also a adjudicable question as to causation.
This demonstration was based on evidence that autopsy photos did not reveal the existence of blue fibers under the victim’s fingernails, and that Gregonis’ alleged discovery of these came after he had had sole possession of Richards’ shirt and two fingers that had been severed from the body by the medical examiner.
“[W]We conclude that Richards showed justifiable concern about whether Gregonis deliberately fabricated the blue fiber evidence,” Tallman said. “A jury will have to solve it.”
Reference to “pattern”
Tallman criticized Otero’s reference to the lack of demonstration that the criminologist had a motive for fabricating evidence, stating:
“While motive is recognized as potentially strong circumstantial evidence in support of an allegation of fabrication…evidence of motive is never obligatory… In other words, motive is just one type of circumstantial evidence that can be used to support an allegation of deliberate fabrication.
The claims against the county were also reinstated. In light of the overturning of summary judgment in favor of Gregonis, Tallman said, the county may have derivative liability, as well as possibly being liable under Richards’ claims that his policy against medical examiners entering on a crime scene until cleared by law enforcement may result in the loss of exculpatory evidence, and the county does not provide training in the preservation of such evidence.
In a separate opinion brief — signed by Tallman, Ninth Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee and First Circuit Judge Kermit V. Lipez, sitting by designation — other claims were denied.
These concluded the allegation that Gregonis also fabricated blood spatter evidence. The facts were not there to back it up, says the opinion.
Reviews are coming Richards v. San Bernardino County19-56205.
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