March 18, 2013

Woodworth defense challenges evidence, seeks venue change

Woodworth, who was twice convicted of murder, wants key bullet evidence excluded from his third trial in the 1990 shooting death of Cathy Robertson outside Chillicothe, Mo. A Platte County judge expects to rule on the request within two weeks.

Mark Woodworth’s attorneys on Monday began their fight for his ultimate freedom by attacking key evidence that was already used twice to convict him of murder.

With a third trial not scheduled, lawyers for the rural Missouri man argued that the role of a private investigator in gathering and handling evidence tainted the integrity of the entire case

Woodworth, now 38, is accused in the 1990 shooting death of Cathy Robertson and the wounding of her husband, Lyndel Robertson, who lived across the road from his family outside Chillicothe.

His two previous convictions were overturned on appeal, most recently in January, when the Missouri Supreme Court found that prosecutors’ withholding of evidence deprived Woodworth of a fair trial.

The case’s most crucial piece of evidence was a bullet that surgeons removed from Lyndel Robertson. A ballistics expert from England later linked it to a revolver owned by Woodworth’s father.

In Monday’s motion hearing, Woodworth’s attorneys questioned whether the bullet removed from Robertson was the same one that was tested.

The bullet was entrusted to the private investigator, who took it to England after arranging for a lab there to test it, according to testimony.

A ballistics expert hired by the defense testified Monday that records gave conflicting accounts about whether the private investigator or a sheriff’s deputy received the bullet at the hospital.

The records also showed that the bullet then was given to a private examiner to test before it was transferred to the Missouri Highway Patrol for testing.

“That is absolutely forbidden without a subpoena,” said Daniel Jackson, a former examiner for the St. Louis County Police Department. “You don’t want private citizens tainting evidence.”

Jackson also said that the bullet in a crime-scene photo did not appear to be in the same condition as described by the doctor who removed it. He said that in reviewing the records, he found a four-day gap in the bullet’s chain of custody, which must be maintained to prevent tampering with the evidence.

“It may be the same bullet. It may not be,” Jackson said.

Defense attorneys Bob Ramsey and Michele Puckett-Burkhead also asked Jackson about a Livingston County Sheriff’s Department detective who gave the private investigator access to the department’s file without telling the sheriff at the time.

“That is absolutely not proper,” Jackson said.

The defense on Monday also questioned the current Livingston County sheriff, Steve Cox, who said he reopened the investigation into Cathy Robertson’s killing because of concerns he had with the integrity of the original investigation.

If one of his deputies gave an investigative file to a private investigator, “he would not be working for us,” Cox testified.

Cox also said that there was no documentation in the sheriff’s file to indicate that the private investigator had the bullet when he took it to England.

The state did not call any witnesses for Monday’s hearing in front of Platte County Circuit Judge Lee Hull, who was assigned by case by the Supreme Court.

Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce said much of the information raised Monday had already been litigated. Bruce said it was an improper forum to raise chain-of-custody issues.

Bruce argued that such motions should be handled at trial.

Besides questioning evidence, the defense is seeking a change of venue from the 43rd Judicial Circuit, which includes Livingston County.

Hull took the issues under advisement and said he would rule in about two weeks.

Woodworth is free on bond while the case is pending.

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