A judge erred when he found last month that a rural Missouri man’s murder conviction should be thrown out, the Missouri attorney general’s office maintained Thursday.
The state filed its exceptions to the judge’s findings in the case of 37-year-old Mark Woodworth, who has been convicted twice in the November 1990 shooting death of Cathy Robertson near Chillicothe, in northern Missouri.
Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who was appointed as a special master by the Missouri Supreme Court to hear evidence on Woodworth’s appeal of his conviction and life sentence, found in his May 1 ruling that Woodworth was the victim of a “manifest injustice.”
Oxenhandler’s report to the Supreme Court 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.
The judge also found that the evidence against Woodworth was at best “thin … very thin.”
But in its response, the state argued that Woodworth’s attorney had failed to prove that Woodworth’s constitutional rights were violated.
The state pointed out that the judge did not hear much of the evidence that convinced two juries to find Woodworth guilty.
And the state argued in Thursday’s filing that the second trial rendered moot any problems that arose from the investigation and grand jury proceedings that led to Woodworth being charged.
“The state does not ask this court to reconsider its report simply because the state disagrees with the decisions,” Assistant Attorney General Theodore Bruce wrote. “Nevertheless, the state believes that an objective and rational review of the evidence that was actually presented will persuade this court to conclude that petitioner had a burden of proof that he did not sustain.”
The Supreme Court eventually will decide whether the conviction should be vacated and the case sent back to Livingston County to determine if Woodworth should be retried.
Woodworth is incarcerated at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo. His attorney, Bob Ramsey, has said he will seek Woodworth’s release on bond while the Supreme Court considers the case.
In his ruling, Oxenhandler stopped short of finding that Woodworth was actually innocent but said he believed that no jury would have convicted Woodworth if the case had been handled fairly
Members of Cathy Robertson’s family said they were outraged at Oxenhandler’s ruling and called it “judicial activism at its worst.”
Woodworth was 16 when the shooting occurred in 1990. His family lived across the road from the Robertsons. His father and the victim’s husband, Lyndel Robertson, were longtime business partners.
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.
A grand jury indicted 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.
In 1995, a jury found him guilty. The Missouri Court of Appeals later ordered a new trial, saying Woodworth’s attorneys should have been allowed to present evidence about the boyfriend.
With new prosecutors and defense attorneys, a second trial took place in 1999. Despite testimony about the boyfriend, that jury also found Woodworth guilty.