Oscar Clifton case is all but over after Tulare County DA Tim Ward’s review
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
VISALIA – News hit last week that alternative leads pointing away from Oscar Clifton as Donna Jo Richmond’s murderer are all but gone.
Tony Reid and producers of the “12/26/75” podcast have contended for years that Clifton was not the murderer. And with the news of the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, having been an Exeter police officer at the same time of Richmond’s death in town, producers of the podcast went so far as to point the finger at DeAngelo.
With DeAngelo’s DNA in hand, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit took a second look at Clifton’s case last year.
The conviction review process included the thorough examination and evaluation of police reports, photographic evidence, forensic laboratory reports (including DNA analysis), trial and appellate transcripts, and a complete review of information submitted to the Office of the District Attorney by supporters of Clifton.
“Upon completion of this latest review, I am again confident, just as this office was the previous times we reviewed the case, that the countless hours of report analysis, evidence evaluation, court transcripts, and DNA evaluation solidifies that Oscar Clifton tragically and violently ended the life of Donna Jo Richmond in an orange grove the day after Christmas in 1975,” District Attorney Tim Ward said in a statement last week.
December 26, 1975
The District Attorney’s timeline on Dec. 26, 1975 shows at about 3:45 p.m. that day, Richmond left her friend Don Lee’s house in Exeter to ride home on her bike, which was five miles away. Between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. that day, David Richmond, Donna’s brother, found Donna’s bicycle in an orange grove about three quarters of a mile from the intersection of Spruce and Firebaugh.
At 5:45 p.m. Laverne Lamb discovered a pair of green pants belonging to Richmond on the white center divider on Avenue 264 approximately 3.9 miles from Oscar Clifton’s residence. The next afternoon at approximately 1:30 p.m. Jesus Lara discovered Richmond’s body, face down, while spraying in an orange grove east of Road 204 between Avenues 288 and 292 near the Friant-Kern Canal. The DA’s report says Richmond’s body was found 3.4 miles from her bicycle and 12.1 miles from Clifton’s residence.
An autopsy found that the cause of death was manual strangulation associated with blunt trauma to the head and multiple stab wounds to the head and body. As well as the time of death that fell between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 26. The autopsy did not show evidence of penetration but her pubic hair was crusted with dirt and semen.
In 1976 the criminalist was unable to obtain a blood type for this particular semen sample.
According to the DA’s report last week, during the investigation on Dec. 27 and 28, 1975, Richmond’s shoes, panties, sanitary napkin and belt were found 7.7 miles from the body on the side of Road 176, one half mile north of Ave. 264. Richmond’s pants were found one half mile further west on Ave. 264 towards Visalia. Approximately one third mile farther west from her pants, Richmond’s first shoe was discovered, again to the side of Ave. 264. A second shoe belonging to Richmond was located on the side of Ave. 264 even further to the west and about 1.6 miles from Clifton’s home located on the same avenue.
Tulare County Sheriffs largest clue in Richmond’s murder was an invoice book. When Clifton kidnapped Richmond he left her bike and accidentally dropped an invoice book out of his truck containing his name and palm prints, and then transported her 3.4 miles away to another orange grove where he eventually left her. Upon leaving Richmond’s body, Clifton drove home throwing out her underwear, belt, sanitary napkin, pants and shoes. The clothing evidence was recovered along the road to Clifton’s residence with a quarter of a mile detour along the route on a side road.
From the invoice book found near Richmond’s bicycle, detectives were able to track down Clifton’s name and address. Soon after, Clifton was arrested at his residence on Dec. 27, 1975, at approximately 1:00 a.m., for kidnapping.
According to the DA’s release, upon arrest, Clifton initially stated that he had nothing to worry about because he had been with Bill Rose in the morning and then was at a location on the north side of Visalia in the afternoon. When asked where he had gone in Visalia, Clifton changed his story and said that he met Bill Rose at a construction site between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. on Dec. 26.
During the trial, Rose testified that he saw Clifton in Visalia on Dec. 26, at approximately 11:00 am and did not see him again on that date even though they had a pre-arranged appointment to meet at 2:00 p.m.
At trial, Clifton claimed he was at Deborah Roberts’ house at approximately 2:55 to 3:07 p.m. and then drove to 1734 S. Garden Street in Visalia arriving at approximately 3:40 p.m. While there for about ten minutes, Clifton testified that he observed some people moving a freezer sometime between 3:30 and 3:50 p.m. Clifton called Frank Thomas who testified that he and some other people were moving a freezer between 3:10 and 3:20 p.m. that day, but he never observed Clifton.
The prosecution called Bill Irwin, Jim Hoover and George Taylor who testified on rebuttal that they moved a freezer at the Garden Street address from approximately 2:10 to 2:35 p.m. None of the men recalled seeing Clifton or his pickup truck.
Clifton also claimed to have worn his knee brace all day, and denied wearing his cowboy boots, prints of which were photographed at the scene where Richmond’s bike was found. A physician testified that while Oscar Clifton had been the recipient of three knee operations he could run without his brace at the same speed as a normal person.
History of sexual assault
Clifton’s 1976 conviction was not his first sexually violent conviction. As the DA’s office noted in their report, Clifton was convicted in 1965 for assault with intent to rape.
On June 29, 1965, at approximately 4:00 in the afternoon, an 18-year-old referred to as “Connie G.” in reports was sunbathing at the St. Johns River at Road 168 north of Farmersville and west of Woodlake. She testified about what occurred while she was sunbathing at a preliminary hearing on Aug. 4, 1965; and again, at trial on Dec. 6 and 7, 1965.
Connie testified that she noticed a tall skinny man she later identified as Clifton, running towards her. When she first noticed Clifton, he was twenty feet away. Clifton was wearing a blue bathing suit and had some type of nylon stocking covering his head to the neck area. Connie yelled “help” and started to run, Clifton chased after her. Clifton was able to grab Connie and immediately put his hand over her mouth with his other hand holding the back of her neck. Clifton ordered her to “shut up” and directed her to go under a nearby bridge. As a result of the struggle, Connie ended up with a cut lip along with a bruised and scratched knee. Connie agreed to comply but was able to escape and get assistance from a man who had driven up and stopped beside the road.
After reaching safety, Connie noted that Clifton had reappeared on the opposite side of the bridge wearing the same bathing suit but without the stocking. With the nylon stocking removed Connie was able to note that Clifton had long blonde hair and she had a view of the side of his face. The man who helped Connie, only known as Mr. Miller in the DA’s report, called the Sheriff’s Department requesting assistance. Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived and placed Clifton in the back of his patrol vehicle where Connie later positively identified him.
On the day of Richmond’s murder, 10 years later, Clifton was identified in two incidences making overt sexual passes and exposing himself. At approximately 3:00 p.m., Clifton, driving a white Ford pickup, stopped near a 14-year-old girl from Woodlake only referred to as “Beth B.” in the DA’s report. Clifton motioned for Beth to come over towards the pickup and made an sexual remark towards her.
Sometime shortly after 3:30 p.m. the same day a 21-year-old referred to as “Gloria M.” was picking oranges eleven miles from Beth B.’s home. The orange grove was near Exeter at the intersection of Spruce Avenue and List Avenue. Gloria noticed a white pickup going west on the adjacent List Avenue with a male driver. A short time later the same pickup passed again, headed east on List Avenue. Within minutes Gloria turned to look behind her and discovered Clifton standing approximately ten feet away holding himself with both hands and grinning. Gloria told Clifton to leave and ran for help.
At trial Gloria also identified Clifton and stated a photo of his pickup was similar to the one she saw passing by on List Avenue.
A unique pattern
In 1975 a unique set of tire tracks were found and photographed at the locations where Richmond’s body, bicycle and panties were discovered in 1975. At the scene where the panties were found, the tracks measured approximately 64½ inches from the inside edge of the left front tire to the outside edge of the right front tire, and approximately 61½ inches rear wheel tracks. The wheelbase of the vehicle making the tracks was approximately 150 inches. Oscar Clifton’s pickup truck had a front width of 64½ inches, rear width of 60¾ inches, and wheelbase of 152 inches. Expert testimony established that there is usually some deviation when comparing such measurements because of tire inflation and coarse condition of the soil.
During the trial Charles Morton, a criminalist with the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Oakland, conducted an examination of photographs of the tire tracks at each location and compared these photographs with inked impressions made by the tires on Clifton’s pickup truck. This examination established that Clifton’s vehicle had two different models of tires: B.F. Goodrich Silvertown Extra Miler 700-15LT tires with similar tread patterns on the right rear and left front of the vehicle; and, B.F. Goodrich Heavy Duty Express Nylon 700-15LT tires with similar tread pattern on the right front and left rear.
Morton testified that the tire tracks found at the three locations were comparable in tread pattern and tire position on the vehicle leaving the tracks with tires on Clifton’s pickup truck. His conclusion was that the tire tracks made at all three scenes were made by a vehicle which had the same general tread design, in the same positions on the vehicle, as the tire placement on the white Ford pickup belonging to Clifton.
Tony Reid and the producers of the 12/26/75 podcast have questioned the accuracy of the tire tracks found at the scenes where evidence was located.
“Forensic officers were ordered to ignore all other tire tracks…no other vehicle known to be at the scenes were checked for comparison and elimination,” as stated by the producers in a report after the DA’s announcement.
Ward noted that there was more than just the type of tires Clifton had on his truck, but also how they were aligned.
“One of the really circumstantial pieces of the case was there were tire tracks located at the scenes on this…so you had two sets of tires in the same exact locations of these crime scenes on the car in question and organized in a unique pattern. I find that remarkably unique,” Ward said.
After his conviction Clifton filed numerous appeals, Petitions for Writs of Habeas Corpus, and Petitions for Writs of Certiorari (document filed in request that the supreme court review the decision). None of the State and Federal courts, after reviewing the evidence, concluded that Clifton was wrongly convicted of the kidnap, attempted rape and murder of Richmond.
The last time Clifton’s case was reviewed was during an appeal he had filed in 2011. That year, a partial Y-STR DNA profile was developed from semen attached to one of Richmond’s pubic hairs recovered at the scene. Y-STR is specific to the “Y” (male) Chromosome making it particularly informative in sexual assault cases involving female victims of male assailants. This particular test located a specific DNA profile at three of the possible 16 locations on the DNA helix itself. No DNA was identifiable at the remaining 13 locations.
Recently a Y-STR DNA profile was developed for DeAngelo. According Alavezos, DeAngelo’s DNA did not match up on one of the three DNA locations. He added that all three would have to match to fit the partial profile. Therefore, DeAngelo is excluded as a potential suspect in the murder of Richmond.
During the 2011 analysis a known sample of Clifton’s Y-STR DNA was compared to the partial profile developed from the semen attached to Richmond’s public hair. Clifton’s DNA profile was consistent at all three DNA locations. Thus, Clifton cannot be eliminated as the contributor of the semen found on the victim. The DNA analysis provides additional support for the conviction of Clifton in the murder of Richmond.
Reid and the producers of the 12/26/75 podcast contend Richmond’s hair samples were contaminated before they were tested, throwing into doubt the entire profile pulled from Richmond’s hair.
“When [Richmond’s slide] was sent to the lab in 2011, it was wrapped in a cardboard bundle with another slide. There had been no attempt to protect the slides from lab workers, or sample cross-contamination,” 12/26/75 podcasters stated in response to the DA’s announcement last week.
Reid and his producers went on to state the slide cover on the slide with Richmond’ hair had come loose and was held together with scotch tape. With the hairs exposed at one time they say the hair had to potential for contamination at one point.
“Let’s just put it this way, I didn’t see any evidence there was a contamination,” Alavezos said in light of the allegation.
The only concretely sourced information from the producers of the podcast was a lab report from 2011 that had analyzed Richmond’s pubic hair. The report notes, “no cellular material seen; debris only; no sperm.”
Alavezos says there does not need to be sperm present to create a DNA profile, and even before the age of DNA forensics expert testimony pointed the fact there was semen on the evidence provided.
“You can get [DNA] from semen, you don’t have to get it from sperm…this particular situation we had testimony at the trial from one of the pioneers of DNA testing and in pre-DNA testing he was able to identify semen on the hair,” Alavezos said about Clifton’s trial in 1976.
“Much is made of this term, of semen or sperm and all that but I dare say this is not the only case out there where the ejaculate does not contain a sperm cell,” Ward added.
Review, not relitigation
The DA’s Conviction Review Unit’s intent with DeAngelo’s DNA in hand was simply to weigh potentially new found evidence against existing evidence in Clifton’s case, not to relitigate the evidence of the case. With DeAngelo no longer a suspect for Richmond’s murder, Ward says there would have to be new evidence to come to light if they were going to review it yet again.
“Now, if there is new evidence that come up about this case, then maybe we reopen it and look at it again,” Ward said.