COLUMBIA — A Missouri judge ruled Tuesday that a man twice convicted in the 1990 slaying of a local farm wife was the victim of "a manifest injustice" and should have his conviction set aside.
Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case, said prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence to Mark Woodworth's lawyers. Woodworth was 16 when his neighbor, Cathy Robertson, was fatally shot while she slept in her rural home in Chillicothe, a farming community 90 miles north of Kansas City.
Woodworth, whose father farmed with Robertson's husband, wasn't charged until nearly three years after the shooting. Prosecutors based their case on the discovery of a single fingerprint found on an ammunition box inside Robertson's shed and a common manufacturing defect in his father's handgun. He was sentenced to life in prison.
"There was nothing fundamentally fair about the investigation of the Robertson crimes, or in turn, Woodworth's prosecutions and convictions for those crimes," Oxenhandler wrote in his 35-page ruling, the culmination of his work since a weeklong hearing in June.
Bob Ramsey, Woodworth's attorney, said he would petition the Supreme Court to have his client freed on bond while justices decide how to proceed. The high court will ultimately decide whether to grant a new trial.
"We won," Ramsey said. "I'm very gratified. I thought we presented some very strong proof that from the beginning, it was a frame-up."
Oxenhandler determined that state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters casting doubt on Woodworth's guilt that were sent to and from a judge, state and local prosecutors and the victim's husband, Lyndel Robertson, who also was shot but survived the attack in his home.
Oxenhandler determined that Livingston County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lewis "in effect, became a prosecutor," and he chastised the county sheriff for allowing a private investigator hired by Robertson to "inexcusably" lead the murder inquiry.
"Woodworth's constitutionally guaranteed judicial process was ignored," Oxenhandler wrote.
The prosecutor at Woodworth's first trial was Kenny Hulshof, who went on to serve six terms in Congress. But his career as a special state prosecutor was marked by a pattern of court rulings that questioned his courtroom behavior, and two men he helped convict for murder have since been released after judges cited prosecutorial misconduct by Hulshof.
Oxenhandler said that while he couldn't determine whether Hulshof and the subsequent state prosecutor, Rachel Smith, intentionally withheld evidence, it wasn't necessary to find intent.
One of the letters not disclosed by state prosecutors described how Lyndel Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man." That letter was written by the local prosecutor at the time, Doug Roberts, who asked a judge to release him from the case because he didn't have solid evidence to charge Woodworth.
From his hospital bed after the shooting, Lyndel Robertson initially identified his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend as the likely shooter. Robertson later testified that he had not identified that man, who denied involvement, but instead named him as a possible suspect.
The letters were first publicly disclosed by The Associated Press as part of an investigation into the Woodworth case and Hulshof's prosecutorial record.
A spokeswoman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which is handling the Woodworth case, said the agency is reviewing the decision. The state has 30 days to file an objection or other responses to Oxenhandler's ruling.
Although more than two decades have passed since the shootings, interest in the case hasn't diminished in Chillicothe. A group of business owners, former state lawmakers and other community leaders have consistently proclaimed Woodworth's innocence, even as Lyndel Robertson and his five children remain convinced of Woodworth's guilt.