A private investigator’s undocumented handling of crucial evidence in a nearly 23-year-old Missouri murder case was the focus of appeals court arguments Tuesday in Kansas City.
At stake are the two most important pieces of evidence that have been used twice to help convict Mark Woodworth in the 1990 killing of neighbor Cathy Robertson in her farm home outside Chillicothe, Mo.
Woodworth is free on bond while facing a third trial after the Missouri Supreme Court earlier this year threw out his conviction and life sentence.
In April, the Platte County judge presiding over the case barred the state from presenting evidence and testimony about a bullet removed from the body of Robertson’s husband, who was wounded in the same shooting, and the revolver owned by Woodworth’s father, which allegedly fired the bullet.
In order for evidence to be presented to a jury, a judge must have a “reasonable assurance” that it is in essentially the same condition it was at the time of the crime. Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. ruled in April that he was troubled by how the private investigator hired by the Robertson family had been allowed to take the items out of the country for testing without any official documentation.
The state appealed that order, and Tuesday a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals heard arguments on the issue.
Ronald Holliger, a former Missouri Court of Appeals judge, presented the state’s case and argued there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about the role of a private investigator in a criminal case.
Holliger said the judge’s April ruling was not the proper legal venue of dealing with questions about how evidence was handled by the private investigator in the Woodworth case. It should have been an issue raised at trial, he said.
Woodworth’s attorney, Michele Puckett, said she wasn’t asking the judges to find that a private investigator’s role was in itself illegal in a criminal case. But she pointed out that the situation in Woodworth’s case was “extraordinary.”
She said the investigator was “hired to get a conviction” and was given access to evidence in the case, including the entire investigative file, by a deputy without the knowledge of the sheriff at the time.
“That’s what makes it extraordinary,” she said.
Woodworth attended Tuesday’s arguments, as did members of Robertson’s family.
The Robertson family issued a written statement in which it reiterated its belief that a third jury will again convict Woodworth if it is allowed to hear all the evidence.
Woodworth did not want to comment except to say, “I’m pleased with how it went.”
A decision on the appeal is expected in about six weeks.