A decision made 20 years ago in a controversial and ongoing murder case was undone Wednesday when a judge removed the Missouri attorney general’s office as prosecutor in the third trial for a man accused in a 1990 killing.
That means if the trial moves forward, someone else will have to make the case that Mark Woodworth fatally shot his neighbor, Cathy Robertson, at her home outside Chillicothe, Mo.
Lawyers with the attorney general’s office won convictions at both of Woodworth’s previous trials, after a judge appointed the office as a special prosecutor in 1993. The county prosecutor at the time had disqualified himself.
Both convictions were thrown out on appeal, with the Missouri Supreme Court vacating the second one early last year. Woodworth has been free on bond since February pending a retrial.
His lawyers had sought to have the attorney general’s office removed and on Wednesday, Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. granted the motion. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it would not appeal the order.
Hull ordered that Livingston County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Warren take over the case and “proceed to perform his legal duties and obligations in accordance with law.”
“Justice, fairness and the requirements of due process of law require an independent review of this case by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation in this case,” Hull wrote.
In a written statement released late Wednesday afternoon, members of Robertson’s family said the decision was anything but fair to them.
“Citizens in the state of Missouri who value fairness and justice should be very worried if they ever become victims of a crime,” Cathy Robertson’s daughter, Rhonda Robertson Oesch, wrote. “We believe this case is an example of the courts exerting their political opinions over the good judgment of the jurors. The jurors got it right in this case.”
Oesch said the family will ask that Warren be recused from the case because he has done work for members of their family.
The statement also questioned the timing of the decision with a trial date of July 21 set just last week.
“We find it hard to believe that any prosecutor in his or her right mind would accept a complicated case like this and believe he/she can properly prepare it for trial by July 21, 2014,” Oesch said in the statement.
Warren said Wednesday that he has not seen the case file or evidence, and said he would have to review the material to ensure that he did not have a conflict of interest because of his work as a private attorney representing clients in civil cases.
Ultimately, if he does take the case, Warren said whatever decision he makes would not be based on what previous prosecutors had decided.
“I would have to believe Mark Woodworth is guilty and that I could prove it to a jury,” he said.
In previously filed court documents, defense lawyers for Woodworth accused the attorney general’s office of misconduct throughout its tenure in the case, arguing that it had repeatedly violated rules of evidence, such as withholding information beneficial to the defense.
Defense attorney Bob Ramsey declined to discuss those previous written allegations on Wednesday.
“We thought that if a fresh pair of eyes looked at the facts, it is going to be the best thing for Mark,” he said.
Prosecutors have said that when he was 16, Woodworth retrieved a pistol that belonged to his father, walked across the road to the Robertson property, loaded the pistol with bullets from a storage shed and then went into the house where he shot Cathy Robertson and her husband while they slept. Lyndel Robertson survived his wounds.
At Woodworth’s second trial, defense attorneys presented evidence and argued that a young man who dated one of the Robertsons’ daughters had the motive and means to commit the crime.
Woodworth was not charged until several years after the killing. By then, a judge had appointed the attorney general’s office to the case after the county attorney asked to be removed.