In a scathing order, a Platte County judge on Monday threw out key evidence against a rural Missouri man who has spent 20 years maintaining his innocence in a 1990 murder.
Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. excoriated law enforcement’s handling of critical bullet and revolver evidence that state prosecutors have used to twice convict Mark Woodworth of murdering Cathy Robertson and wounding her husband, Lyndel, in November 1990 outside Chillicothe.
“(T)he court finds that there has been an egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard of evidentiary procedures,” Hull wrote in his 10-page order.
Elsewhere in the order, Hull described law enforcement’s lack of documentation as “odious.”
Woodworth was remodeling the basement of his parents’ home near Chillicothe when his lawyer called with the news. “I feel great,” he said. “It’s a great victory.”
Woodworth was 16 at the time of the shootings. After a long investigation, he was charged in 1993 with murder and assault. A jury convicted him two years later.
That conviction was overturned. Woodworth was tried and convicted a second time in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison.
The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the second conviction in January, ruling that Woodworth had not received a fair trial and raising the prospect for a third trial.
A spokeswoman for state Attorney General Chris Koster said Monday that prosecutors “are reviewing the ruling” and had nothing more to announce. Officials previously said Koster’s office would try Woodworth a third time.
In a written statement, the Robertson family said Hull’s ruling ignores the experience of two juries that saw the evidence and convicted Woodworth.
“The decision by Judge Hull to hide the evidence stomps on the rights of crime victims all over the state of Missouri,” the statement said. “Twenty-four jurors saw the evidence firsthand and believed Mark Woodworth is guilty.”
Woodworth’s lawyers have fought to bar the state from presenting ballistics evidence that has been at the core of its previous cases.
In the initial investigation, local ballistics experts could not conclusively match bullets and bullet fragments from the crime to a pistol owned by Woodworth’s father.
Private detective Terry Deister then arranged for the pistol and a bullet removed from Lyndel Robertson’s body in 1992 to be sent to a British crime laboratory. The Robertson family had hired Deister to assist with the investigation and a civil lawsuit the family had filed against Woodworth’s parents in a business dispute.
Writing to the head of the crime lab, Deister described his theory of the case and problems he was having with the investigation. The letter to a potential expert witness could be seen as an effort to influence that lab’s evaluation of the evidence, Woodworth’s lawyer has argued.
That lab eventually reported that a manufacturing defect in the pistol had left a distinctive mark on the bullet.
Hull said he was disturbed by the influence that a “nonofficial” private investigator paid by the Robertson family had on the official investigation.
“More troubling is the fact that there is a lack of documentation with regard to the actions of the private investigator regarding his control and domination over certain items of evidence,” Hull wrote.
Hull threw out any ballistics evidence obtained from the bullet or the revolver after Aug. 31, 1992, the day of Lyndel Robertson’s surgery.
Robert Ramsey, Woodworth’s lawyer, praised the judge’s order.
“He is obviously very outraged at the way this whole thing was handled,” Ramsey said of his client. “It’s a very good thing. You don’t see this sort of language too often in court orders.”