There is perhaps no sadder and lonelier place at Christmastime than prison.
Mark Woodworth knows that all too well, which is why he is enjoying this holiday season so much.
For the first time in 15 years, Woodworth is out of prison and spending Christmas with his family.
“It’s definitely a 180-degree turn,” said Woodworth, who was released from prison on bond after his murder conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered.
The regimented tedium of prison life makes Christmas Day “no different than any other day,” he said.
Not so in the Woodworth home outside Chillicothe, where presents have been stacked under the tree for a couple of weeks and dozens of his mother’s hand-painted ceramic Santa Claus figurines cover the mantel and just about every bit of shelf space.
Woodworth grins big when he contemplates the chance to spend the holidays with his parents and six younger brothers and sisters and watch his 13 nieces and nephews — all of them born after his incarceration began — tear into their gifts.
“I’ve never had a Christmas with my nieces and nephews,” he said.
It will also be the first time to hear what has become a family tradition while he was away.
“All of the girls sing Christmas songs around the fireplace,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Last year at this time, Woodworth was looking forward anxiously to something else: freedom.
He was waiting for a ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court after a long legal struggle seeking to overturn his conviction and life sentence for the 1990 killing of a woman who lived across the road from his family’s home.
That ruling came in January, when the court found that Woodworth had not received a fair trial. On Feb. 15, dozens of well-wishers and supporters greeted Woodworth after his release. He had spent all but 14 months incarcerated since 1993, when he first was arrested and charged.
In 1995, a jury found him guilty of murder in the shooting death of Cathy Robertson and the wounding of her husband. That conviction was overturned on appeal.
He was tried a second time, again convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The Missouri Supreme Court overturned that conviction in January, but the Missouri attorney general’s office is gearing up for a third trial.
A trial date has not been set, and attorneys are battling back and forth in pretrial legal maneuvers.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Woodworth said, although people around town are always asking him about the case. “It’s always there.”
In the days and weeks after being released, Woodworth often found himself experiencing the “surreal” sensation of living outside prison.
“I would walk down in the timber (on land behind his parents’ house) and couldn’t believe I was doing it,” he said.
His re-entry to society was eased somewhat by the companionship of Samson and Sadie, two dogs Woodworth had trained as part of a prison program. They were adopted by his family and waiting to be reunited with him when he got home.
Woodworth has gotten over the newness of being free, and a new and decidedly more exciting situation has entered his life.
He is engaged to be married.
They were introduced by a relative after Woodworth’s release. No wedding date has been set, and Woodworth said it will probably wait until after a trial.
In a scene that he couldn’t have imagined last December, Woodworth and his fiancee went Christmas shopping recently. She was, however, unsuccessful in getting him to shop on Black Friday.
“No, thanks,” Woodworth said.
He has not lacked for work since his release. The family farms corn and soybeans and also operates Woodworth Manufacturing, which makes custom-made trailers of all sizes and allows Mark to use welding skills he learned in prison.
He also has been using those welding skills to create a Christmas surprise for his mother. His parents, Jackie and Claude Woodworth, have been vacationing in Florida. When they return home this weekend, it will be adorned with Christmas lights and sitting in the front yard.
Woodworth will be spending Christmas Day with his grandparents in Illinois. The celebration at the home in Chillicothe will be held Jan. 4, when the large clan can all be gathered together.
For Woodworth, the people you’re with is more important than where you are on Christmas.
“Definitely being with my family is No. 1.”