Columbia hearing might determine Chillicothe murder conviction retrial

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 | 11:06 a.m. CDT; updated 9:15 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 1, 2011

COLUMBIA — Two trials and more than two decades after a mother of five was fatally shot in her rural home in Chillicothe, a hearing starting Tuesday could determine whether the man convicted is granted a retrial.

Mark Woodworth was 16 when Cathy Robertson, the wife of his father's farming partner, was killed in 1990. Woodworth was convicted by a jury in 1995, briefly released after a successful appeal and again convicted in 1999. He is serving a life sentence for murder.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in November that Woodworth could present new testimony as part of his latest appeal. Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler will preside over the hearing in Columbia and recommend to the state high court whether Woodworth deserves a retrial.

Although it isn't a trial, defense attorney Bob Ramsey views the hearing as a chance to introduce new evidence and call witnesses who have yet to testify. Those witnesses include Kenny Hulshof, who was the special state prosecutor who handled Woodworth's first trial and later served six terms in Congress.

Hulshof handled high-profile murder cases in small Missouri communities that often lacked experienced local prosecutors. Since February 2009, two murder convictions he handled have been thrown out.

"I certainly think those things are relevant," Ramsey said. "When you get right down to it, there was an investigation that had no serious attempt to ascertain Mark Woodworth's actual innocence."

The hearing is expected to last four days. The judge isn't expected to rule this week.

A 2008 investigation by The Associated Press found that in addition to the recently dismissed cases of Joshua Kezer and Dale Helmig, prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to four death sentence reversals, though in several cases subsequent trials led to new convictions. Another man accused of murder was acquitted during a second trial after his initial conviction, handled by Hulshof, was rejected on appeal.

State prosecutors plan to call Hulshof and St. Louis city prosecutor Rachel Smith, who handled Woodworth's 1999 trial, during the new hearing.

However, Ramsey expects to summon at least 30 witnesses. The first will likely be Robertson's husband, Lyndel Robertson, who was seriously injured in the shooting and initially suggested that his daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend was responsible. He later recanted that account.

Brandon Thomure, the boyfriend who denied any involvement, is also scheduled to testify. So is Doug Roberts, the former Livingston County prosecutor who boycotted the grand jury proceedings that led to Woodworth's indictment in 1993 because he didn't think the case was strong enough. The judge eventually asked for a special state prosecutor to be assigned to the case.

At trial, Hulshof cited a business dispute between Woodworth's father and Lyndel Robertson as his motive. The key evidence was a single thumb print found on an ammunition box inside the Robertsons' shed.

Mark Woodworth, a high school dropout who helped his father and Lyndel Robertson, said the box of bullets had been moved to the shed from Lyndel Robertson's pickup truck. A farm employee testified that Lyndel Robertson regularly moved ammunition boxes between his truck and the shed.

None of Mark Woodworth's fingerprints were found on his father's revolver, the purported murder weapon. An identical gun owned by Lyndel Robertson wasn't dusted for prints. No fingerprints were found on the shed or the front door of the Robertson home. And an unidentified fingerprint was found in the Robertsons' bedroom.

Police and prosecutors offered no explanation for that print. Instead, they theorized that Mark Woodworth removed a loaded gun from his parents' bedroom while they slept and walked across the rural highway between the two homes to shoot his neighbors — but not before emptying his father's weapon and reloading it with bullets from the Robertsons' shed. Prosecutors argued that after the shooting, Mark Woodworth placed his father's bullets back before returning the weapon.

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