Chillicothe Murder Conviction on Appeal for the 3rd time
Inmate pleads his case again in 1990 Chillicothe killing
Missouri high court hears what could be final appeal in 1990 Chillicothe killing.
By TONY RIZZO
The Kansas City Star
In a case defying final resolution for more than two decades, the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday heard what could be a convicted killer’s last chance at freedom.
It’s a case that has seen an adolescent mature into middle age behind bars while his family — and the loved ones of the woman he’s twice been convicted of killing — witness a grueling legal state of limbo.
Long jailed for the 1990 shooting death of Cathy Robertson in her farm home outside of Chillicothe, Mo., Mark Woodworth wants a chance to make his case to a third jury.
It could take several months for the court to issue a ruling — possibly rejecting his last best chance at appeal, setting the stage for a new trial or simply setting him free.
Defense attorney Bob Ramsey maintains that Woodworth, who was a 16-year-old neighbor of Robertson at the time, was denied a fair trial by investigators who hid evidence from the defense and ignored leads implicating another possible suspect.
A mid-Missouri judge agreed in a ruling in May that there was “nothing fundamentally fair” in the prosecution of Woodworth. That judge, Gary Oxenhandler, was appointed by the Supreme Court to take testimony and hear evidence on Woodworth’s claims, and found that he deserved a new trial.
Last year, The Star explored Woodworth’s case in stories about former state prosecutor and onetime U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who handled Woodworth’s first trial. Two other murder defendants prosecuted by Hulshof have been freed in recent years after their convictions were thrown out.
On Thursday, Ramsey and Assistant Attorney General Theodore Bruce made their respective arguments to the court about whether or not to uphold Oxenhandler’s findings.
Bruce told the high court justices that Oxenhandler had an “insufficient basis” for his findings. He argued that Ramsey failed to prove his claim that Woodworth’s trial attorneys were denied access to evidence that could have benefitted his case.
“There is no new evidence in this case,” Bruce said.
Bruce also said that the defense focus on the alternate suspect, who dated Robertson’s daughter at the time, was a “red herring.”
Woodworth’s first conviction in 1995 was overturned on appeal because his defense had not been allowed to present evidence about that young man.
At his second trial in 1999, the defense was allowed to introduce that evidence, but again, the jury found him guilty.
Since then, Woodworth’s attorney has interviewed witnesses and compiled information that he said points to the other suspect or raises questions about his statements and alibi. Investigators for the state had access to some of that evidence and witnesses, he said, but failed to follow up or kept it from the defense.
That includes testimony about a phone call two weeks before the killing, in which the daughter’s boyfriend allegedly threatened to slit Cathy Robertson’s throat, Ramsey told justices Thursday.
Bruce countered that it was scientific evidence about the fatal shot coming from a gun owned by Woodworth’s father — not speculation about the involvement of another suspect — that convinced two juries of Woodworth’s guilt.
“No matter how often they argue (the boyfriend) did it, they cannot put the gun in his hand,” Bruce argued.
Ramsey, however, said that the jury that considered testimony about the boyfriend was given “a substantially altered version of the truth” when making its decision.
Investigators, including a private investigator hired by Robertson’s husband, homed in on Woodworth as a suspect and “deep-sixed evidence that didn’t fit their theory,” Ramsey said. Robertson’s husband, Lyndel, was wounded in the 1990 shooting
Ramsey also said that the physical evidence relied on so heavily by the state was not “unassailable.” Woodworth’s defense has questioned the handling of key pieces of evidence and their subsequent analysis.
Several of the Supreme Court justices on Thursday seemed interested in how some of the evidence was handled by the private investigator.
They questioned the lawyers about the private investigator’s role, including him being given the sheriff’s department’s investigative file and the arrangement he made with a laboratory in England that tested the alleged murder weapon and bullets from the crime scene.
The private investigator took the gun and bullets to England after two firearms examiners in Missouri could not conclusively say that the gun owned by Woodworth’s father fired the fatal shots into Cathy Robertson and wounded her husband as they slept. Woodworth’s father and Lyndel Robertson were longtime business partners.
The English laboratory later concluded that it was the murder weapon.
Bruce, from the attorney general’s office, said that Woodworth was not prejudiced by the fact that the private investigator handled any of the material.
“There is not one shred of evidence that he somehow tainted the case,” Bruce argued.
In arguing that Woodworth deserves a new trial, Ramsey asked the justices to consider the cumulative effect of all the questionable actions allegedly taken by the state and its agents throughout the history of the case.
“I think there is prejudice,” he said.
Members of both the Robertson and Woodworth families attended Thursday’s arguments in Jefferson City.
In a written statement released later Thursday, the Robertson family implored the Supreme Court to uphold Woodworth’s conviction.
“The 24 men and women from both juries, who saw the evidence firsthand and believed beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark was the killer of our mother, had an objective and clear view of the reality of this horrifying situation,” they said in the statement. “It’s time to put this nightmare behind us and allow our mother to rest in peace and our family to achieve justice.”
Jackie Woodworth, who attended the hearing on behalf of her son, said she believed the arguments went well and now all she can do is wait and pray.
“We’re hoping,” she said, “that Mark will get to come home.”