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Name: In re Richards
Case #: S189275
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 12/03/2012
Subsequent History: Abrogated by statute: Pen. Code, § 1473, subd. (e) (Stats. 2014, ch. 623 (SB 1058))
Summary

Habeas petitioner’s new expert opinion evidence, including evidence that the prosecution’s expert testified inaccurately at trial, failed to meet the false evidence and new evidence standards of Penal Code section 1473, subdivision (b). Petitioner was convicted of the murder of his wife. At trial, the prosecution presented the testimony of a forensic dentist that a lesion on the victim’s body might be a bite mark consistent with petitioner’s unusual dentition. Some ten years later, petitioner filed a habeas petition, asserting that the forensic dentist’s evidence was false and that new evidence established his innocence. At a hearing on the petition, the dentist testified that his previous testimony was not scientifically accurate and he could not say that the injury was a human bite mark. Other experts explained how photos of the lesion had been enhanced under new techniques to such an extent as to contradict the conclusion that petitioner was the biter, or that the lesion was even a bite mark. The trial court granted habeas relief and ordered petitioner remanded for a new trial, but the appellate court vacated the order. Affirmed. Under section 1473, subdivision (b), habeas relief is available if material or probative false evidence was introduced at a hearing or petitioner presents new evidence that unerringly points to innocence or reduced culpability. In the context of expert opinion testimony, the false evidence standard applies only if a preponderance of the evidence shows that an expert opinion stated at trial was objectively untrue. Due to the inherently subjective nature of an expert’s opinion, it is conceivable and even reasonable that an expert’s opinion over time, with evolving research and scientific breakthroughs, may change. Even when new expert opinion testimony is offered that criticizes or casts doubt on the original opinion, it has not necessarily been established that the original opinion was false. Here, the experts at the habeas hearing did not absolutely rule out petitioner’s teeth as a possible source of the lesion. Because petitioner could not establish the original dental forensic evidence as being objectively untrue, he was not entitled to habeas relief on the ground of false evidence. Although new evidence undermined the original dental evidence, it did not unerringly point to petitioner’s innocence or diminished culpability as a strong case establishing guilt otherwise existed.