One judge who reviewed the state of Missouri’s prosecution of Chillicothe resident Mark Woodworth called the process “a manifold injustice.”
Now a second judge has declared that “the concept of ‘due process of law’ took flight” early on in the long-winding case, which sent Woodworth to prison in 1995 for the murder of a neighbor, Cathy Robertson.
And in a stunning rebuke to some of Missouri’s most powerful politicians, Platte County Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. has ordered the state attorney general’s office off the case.
“Given the history of this case, at this point in time there is absolutely no reason the office of attorney general should prosecute this case,” wrote Hull, who was assigned the matter on a change of venue.
Cathy Robertson was fatally shot while sleeping in her home in November 1990. Woodworth, a neighbor, was 16 at the time. His father was the business partner of Lyndel Robertson, Cathy’s husband, although the relationship was fraying.
Woodworth was charged with the murder in 1993 and found guilty two years later. He received a second trial in 1999 but was again convicted.
Hull’s order summarizes some of the problems in the case’s long history.
The Livingston County sheriff’s office turned over the murder investigation to a private investigator hired by the victim’s family. He was given access to investigative files and physical evidence and allowed to create a narrative that pinned the crime on Woodworth and excluded other possibilities. In addition, prosecutors in both trials withheld evidence that could have been helpful to the defense.
The state attorney general’s office, headed by now-Gov. Jay Nixon, got involved when the Livingston County prosecutor, who had been reluctant to charge Woodworth, took himself off the case. One of Nixon’s assistants, Kenny Hulshof, took over.
Working with dubious physical evidence, Hulshof won a conviction. Four years later, with another assistant attorney general arguing for the state, Woodworth was convicted again. But more withheld evidence later surfaced, and in 2010 the state Supreme Court asked Boone County Judge Gary Oxenhandler to review the case.
Oxenhandler said he was convinced that had the investigation and prosecutions been handled properly, “no jury would have convicted Woodworth of the crimes charged.” The Supreme Court set aside Woodworth’s conviction.
Missouri’s current attorney general, Chris Koster, could have spoken out about a faulty process that put a man in prison for years and shook confidence in the state’s criminal justice system. Instead, he said he would try Woodworth a third time.
Now, he won’t get the chance.
In what looks like an extraordinary lack of confidence in the work of the office under Nixon and Koster, Hull said in his order, “Justice, fairness and the requirements of due process of law require an independent review of this case by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation.”
The judge turned the case over to Livingston County’s new prosecuting attorney, Adam Warren, who said he will review whether to proceed with a trial. Woodworth has been out of prison on bond for about a year with his fate still unresolved.
As is usually the case, those who mismanage criminal justice meet with few consequences. Nixon spent 16 years as attorney general and moved up to governor. Hulshof served 12 years in the U.S. Congress. Courts have raised serious questions about his handling of several cases during Hulshof’s time as Nixon’s assistant in the attorney general’s office.
Now Koster, another attorney general with big political ambitions, has held a third trial over the head of a man who already has been subjected to two unjust prosecutions and years of lost freedom.
In his order, Hull made an observation that has eluded too many Missouri prosecutors, in this case and others: “Trials may not achieve perfection, but they should be fair; justice requires no less.”