Accused as a teen, Mark Woodworth watched two juries convict him in the 1990 shooting death of a neighbor at her farmhouse outside of Chillicothe, Mo.
But on Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court threw out his conviction, clearing the way for the now 38-year-old man to be freed unless prosecutors decide to try him for a third time in the killing of Cathy Robertson, 40.
In a 6-0 decision, the Supreme Court adopted the findings of a mid-Missouri judge who found in May that Woodworth did not receive a fair trial because favorable evidence was withheld from his attorneys.
That judge, Gary Oxenhandler, served as the court’s special master to collect evidence and hear testimony.
He found that the withheld evidence would have “bolstered a key defense theory that another person had committed the crime and that the prosecution had focused improperly on Mark,” the Supreme Court noted.
The Supreme Court said it adopted the judge’s findings because the evidence supported them and he had “the opportunity to view and determine the credibility of witnesses.”
In a phone interview from the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Woodworth, who is serving four life terms, said Tuesday that he had been a “long time waiting.”
“It’s an awesome feeling,” he said.
Woodworth learned of the decision in a phone call from his attorney, Bob Ramsey, who has represented him for nearly a decade.
Ramsey plans to request a bond be set so Woodworth can be freed while prosecutors decide whether to retry him.
“This is the best news I’ve had in a long, long time,” Ramsey said.
The case has created a rift in the Chillicothe community for more than two decades.
Many people rallied around Woodworth’s family and his persistent claims of innocence, while others supported the Robertson family, including the victim’s husband, who suffered serious wounds in the attack.
On Tuesday, Cathy Robertson’s daughter, Rhonda Robertson Oesch, said in a written statement that the justice system had failed her mother. She said that she has spoken with Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who told her he was committed to finding justice for the family.
“If the Missouri Supreme Court believed Mark Woodworth was innocent, he would have been exonerated,” Oesch said in her statement. “His sentence was vacated because of an alleged technical error. That is not justice.”
Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Koster, said the attorney general intends to retry Woodworth, and will ask the Livingston County prosecutor and sheriff to transfer all evidence to the attorney general’s Jefferson City office.
The Supreme Court is expected to file its case mandate in about a month. The court ordered that Woodworth be released within 60 days of the mandate unless prosecutors institute a new prosecution.
Woodworth was 16 in November 1990 when someone shot Cathy Robertson to death in her bed and wounded her husband, Lyndel Robertson.
Lyndel Robertson and Mark’s father, Claude Woodworth, were business partners. Mark worked in their farming operation.
The investigation did not focus on Mark Woodworth until a private investigator hired by Lyndel Robertson began working with a sheriff’s department investigator. Authorities identified Woodworth’s thumbprint on a box of bullets in a shed on the Robertson property. Prosecutors contended that a gun owned by Woodworth’s father had fired the fatal bullets.
The defense countered that Mark could have handled the bullet box during target practice, and that Lyndel Robertson owned an identical weapon.
The Missouri Court of Appeals threw out Woodworth’s 1995 conviction because his defense had not been allowed to present evidence about the other possible suspect. A second jury convicted him in 1999.
It was only later that an Associated Press reporter researching the state’s case found a series of letters written before Woodworth’s first trial. Ramsey argued that they contained information important to the defense, which never received copies.
The letters were between Lyndel Robertson, original trial judge Kenneth Lewis and special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, then a Missouri assistant attorney general who later would be elected to Congress. Woodworth’s case marks the third time courts have ordered defendants Hulshof prosecuted to be freed. They declared two to be innocent.
In one letter, Robertson asked the judge to remove the county prosecutor for not pursuing the case and asked the judge to convene a grand jury. After the prosecutor withdrew, the judge sought Hulshof’s appointment as a special prosecutor.
The letters also disclose that Robertson initially insisted that his daughter’s former boyfriend be prosecuted for the shootings.
The defense could have used those letters to challenge Robertson’s credibility at trial and show that the state’s investigation “was not impartial,” the Supreme Court noted.
“This would have provided important support for the defense’s argument that the investigation of Mark was one-sided and highlighted that the evidence against him was weak and circumstantial,” the court stated.
The court also found that Woodworth’s defense should have been told that the other potential suspect had violated a protection order obtained by the Robertsons’ daughter.
Those reports could have bolstered the defense argument that the other man had “motive and opportunity” to commit the shooting while rebutting the state’s claim that the man never had threatened the daughter.
Until a trial decision is made, Woodworth and his family hope he can be released on bond.
Claude Woodworth said Tuesday that news of the ruling had “lifted a couple of concrete blocks from my shoulders.”
He said the family had never given up hope that his son would come home.
“We still have the Christmas tree up waiting for him.”