Through two trials, two convictions and 17 despairing years in prison, Mark Woodworth never stopped hoping for the news that finally came Tuesday.
The murder charge that hung over him for more than two decades has been dismissed — forever.
“It is the day we’ve been dreaming of,” said his attorney, Bob Ramsey.
After studying the evidence and finding it insufficient, a special prosecutor decided Woodworth should not be tried a third time in connection with the 1990 shooting death of neighbor Cathy Robertson in her home near Chillicothe, Mo.
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“There wasn’t any evidence that made me believe that Mark Woodworth was guilty,” said former Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Don Norris, who filed the dismissal Tuesday afternoon in Platte County Circuit Court. Norris had been appointed as special prosecutor earlier this year.
Ramsey was overjoyed at the decision.
“I can’t think of a more deserving man to have this weight off his shoulders than Mark,” Ramsey said.
Yet the Robertson family called Tuesday’s decision “stunning” and a “callous disregard for justice and victim’s rights.”
“The criminal justice system has failed all of us who seek justice for our loved ones and who believe in the jury system,” the family said in a written statement.
They said Norris didn’t interview any of the state’s witnesses, including Lyndel Robertson, who survived being wounded during the shooting that killed his wife.
Woodworth was a teenager at the time.
Two juries convicted him, but both convictions later were dismissed. After the second was thrown out in early 2013, Woodworth won his release from prison on bond while awaiting a possible third trial.
On Tuesday, Woodworth, now 39, said he was still trying to digest the news.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
Woodworth has maintained his innocence since he was first accused and arrested several years after the killing. He spent 17 years in prison and was facing life behind bars before the Missouri Supreme Court threw out his second conviction.
Before the shooting, the Woodworth and Robertson families were longtime friends who ran a joint farming operation and lived across the road from each other outside Chillicothe in Livingston County, Mo.
Cathy and Lyndel Robertson were asleep in their bedroom the night of Nov. 13, 1990, when someone walked in and fired six shots from a .22-caliber handgun.
Immediately afterward, a critically injured Lyndel Robertson told friends and investigators that he believed his oldest daughter’s boyfriend had been the shooter.
But after the case had gone unsolved for several years, investigators began focusing instead on Woodworth after Robertson hired a private detective who worked with a sheriff’s deputy on the case. After the private investigator arranged for a test by a British crime lab, a bullet from the crime was matched with a .22-caliber handgun owned by Woodworth’s father.
And Missouri investigators found Woodworth’s thumbprint on a box of .22-caliber bullets inside a shed on the Robertson property.
But the Livingston County prosecutor did not file charges at that time. Robertson lobbied a judge to have the prosecutor removed. Instead, the prosecutor recused himself. The Missouri attorney general’s office took over the case and obtained a grand jury indictment against Woodworth.
A jury found him guilty. The conviction was thrown out because the defense had not been allowed to present evidence about the man Robertson initially had suspected as being the shooter.
After a second trial, despite the new defense evidence, Woodworth once again was convicted.
He might have remained in prison if Alan Zagier, a reporter for The Associated Press, had not looked into the case several years ago and discovered documents in the state’s file that never had been turned over to Woodworth’s attorneys.
After lengthy litigation, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Woodworth had not received a fair trial because that information had been withheld.
The attorney general’s office launched plans to try Woodworth a third time, but Ramsey argued that the attorney general should be removed from the case because of the past concerns about withheld evidence. Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr., who had been assigned by the Supreme Court to handle the case, granted Ramsey’s motion.
After the current Livingston County prosecutor said he had a conflict of interest, Hull appointed Norris, a former Clay County prosecuting attorney and associate circuit judge, as special prosecutor.
Hull also threw out the gun and bullet evidence because of improper handling and documentation.
The third trial had been scheduled to begin next week until Norris recently obtained a continuance until September.
Since being released on bond, Woodworth has gotten married and worked in his family’s welding shop on the same property the family owned in 1990.
He was working in the shop Tuesday when Ramsey called him with the news.
“I’m still wondering if it’s real,” Woodworth said in a phone conversation shortly afterward.
His father, Claude Woodworth, said he felt like a load of bricks had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Our prayers finally got answered,” he said.
Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox said that he believes Norris made the right decision.
But he said the investigation into Cathy Robertson’s killing remains open, and that any new tips or leads will be pursued.
In their statement, the Robertson family said that someday, Woodworth will have to answer to a higher power.
“We will continue to advocate for justice for our beloved mother Cathy Robertson,” the statement said. “She deserved it 20 years ago and she deserves it today.”
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November 1990: Cathy Robertson is killed and her husband, Lyndel Robertson, gravely wounded.
October 1993: A grand jury indicts Mark Woodworth for the killing and assault.
March 1995: A jury convicts Woodworth. The conviction is later overturned on appeal.
November 1999: A second jury convicts Woodworth. He is sentenced to life in prison.
January 2013: The Missouri Supreme Court throws out Woodworth’s second conviction.
Tuesday: Special prosecutor Don Norris dismisses the charge.