A 37-year-old rural Missouri man imprisoned much of his life for killing a neighbor was the victim of “manifest injustice” and his conviction should be thrown out, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Two juries have convicted Mark Woodworth in the November 1990 shooting death of Cathy Robertson near Chillicothe, in northern Missouri.
But in late 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler as a special master to hear evidence on Woodworth’s appeal of his conviction and life sentence.
On Tuesday, Oxenhandler filed his report, in which he found that there was “nothing fundamentally fair” about the investigation and prosecutions of Woodworth, whose case The Star featured last year.
The evidence against Woodworth was at best “thin … very thin,” Oxenhandler said.
He cited numerous problems, including the conduct of the county presiding judge at the time, the role of a private investigator hired by the victim’s husband, and the failure of prosecutors to provide key information to the defense before each trial. Investigators also ignored evidence that suggested a different suspect, whose alibi was “shaky, at best,” Oxenhandler wrote.
“This court is skeptical that a jury of reasonable men and women, with a fair look, would find Woodworth guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he wrote.
The state has 30 days to file exceptions to the report. The Supreme Court will then schedule a hearing to allow arguments. The court will determine if the conviction should be vacated and the case sent back to Livingston County to determine if Woodworth should be retried.
In August, The Star featured Woodworth’s case in stories about former state prosecutor and U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who handled Woodworth’s first trial. Two other murder defendants prosecuted by Hulshof have been freed in recent years after their convictions were thrown out.
Hulshof was traveling Tuesday and not available for comment. A spokeswoman for his law firm said he had not read the report.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said Tuesday, “We are reviewing the ruling,” and had no additional comment.
Woodworth, who is incarcerated at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo., called his parents with the news.
“We’re thrilled to death,” said his mother, Jackie Woodworth. “It’s the one we’ve been praying for a very long time.”
Bob Ramsey, the attorney who has represented Woodworth for about a decade, said he was grateful for the ruling and is looking forward to getting Woodworth freed.
“I have never, ever doubted that Mark is innocent,” Ramsey said.
Though Oxenhandler said in his ruling that he could not make the jump to finding Woodworth actually innocent, he said he was “clearly convinced” that if the case been handled fairly, no jury would have convicted him.
“It is convincingly clear that our judicial process wronged Woodworth and that he deserves the relief that our judicial process affords,” Oxenhandler wrote.
The case has created a rift in the northern Missouri farming community for more than two decades. Many have rallied around the Woodworth family, believing that Mark Woodworth was innocent. Current Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox reopened the investigation, saying in a court hearing last year that “I’ve always had concern about the outcome of the case.”
But friends and supporters of the Robertsons have been just as convinced of Woodworth’s guilt.
“The family is outraged by this opinion,” said Susan Ryan, a Robertson family spokeswoman. “We trusted the process to be fair and impartial and it failed us.”
She said that the judge ignored the “facts and the truth,” and said the family called on the Missouri Supreme Court to “review the overwhelming evidence against Mark Woodworth” and uphold the decisions of two juries.
“This appears to be judicial activism at its worst,” Ryan said.
Woodworth was 16 when the shooting happened in 1990. His family lived across the road from the Robertsons. His father and Lyndel Robertson were business partners, though it was a deteriorating relationship at the time of the shootings, according to court records.
Cathy and Lyndel Robertson were asleep in their bedroom when a gunman fired six .22-caliber bullets into them. Cathy Robertson died. Lyndel Robertson survived critical injuries. Although he later said he never saw the shooter, he told many people, including police investigators, that he believed the killer was the boyfriend of their eldest daughter.
The case went uncharged for months, but after Lyndel Robertson hired the private investigator, the focus shifted to Woodworth.
After a British ballistics expert solicited by the private investigator linked a gun owned by Woodworth’s father to the crime and Woodworth’s fingerprint was found on a box of .22-caliber bullets in a shed on the Robertson property, a grand jury indicted Woodworth.
In 1995, a jury found him guilty. The Missouri Court of Appeals later ordered a new trial, saying that Woodworth’s attorneys should have been allowed to present evidence about the boyfriend. The court called the case against Woodworth weak, noted the lack of a motive and added: “Had we been on the jury, we might well have voted to acquit.”
With new prosecutors and defense attorneys, a second trial took place in 1999. That jury also found Woodworth guilty.
But in Woodworth’s latest appeal, Ramsey said new evidence gathered in recent years builds a stronger case against the young man first mentioned by Lyndel Robertson.
He also argued that investigators tried to discredit witnesses whose testimony helped Woodworth, and that documents that could have helped Woodworth’s defense never were given to his attorneys.
Those documents include a series of pre-grand-jury letters written by Lyndel Robertson, the county prosecutor and the judge handling the case. The judge’s letter was written to Hulshof. They show, Ramsey contends, that the judge “acted as the de facto prosecutor/law enforcement officer” when the county prosecutor refused to charge Woodworth.
A letter written by the private investigator and signed by Lyndel Robertson to the presiding judge asked the judge to remove Livingston County Prosecutor Doug Roberts from the case for a “lack of enthusiasm.” That prompted Roberts to withdraw, but he reminded the judge of Robertson’s initial “adamant” insistence that his daughter’s boyfriend had been the killer.
That’s when the judge contacted the Missouri attorney general’s office and asked Hulshof to take the case.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Oxenhandler found that the non-disclosure of those letters alone warranted Woodworth’s conviction being thrown out. There was no evidence, he said, that prosecutors intentionally withheld the letters, but that didn’t matter. The defense should have had them.
Beyond that, he found that there was a web of conflicts of interest among some of those involved in the investigation and prosecution, including the private investigator who also was working for Lyndel Robertson in a civil suit against Woodworth’s father, Claude. Oxenhandler also criticized the role played by then-Judge Kenneth Lewis, who presided over the grand jury that indicted Woodworth, appointed a friend as the grand jury foreman and recruited Hulshof.
“This court is hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process: They could be lyrics to a country and western song,” Oxenhandler wrote.
He found that the judge, now retired, “lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness” and “in effect, he became a prosecutor.”
If the Missouri Supreme Court agrees with Oxenhandler that Woodworth’s conviction should be set aside, it could fall on current Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren to decide if Woodworth is retried.
“If I’m ordered to look at it I will,” Warren said Tuesday.