COLUMBIA — A Boone County judge rejected Monday the state's objections to his recent ruling that criticizes the murder conviction of a Chillicothe man seeking a new trial while serving a life sentence.
Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler declined to revise a May 1 legal opinion that deemed Mark Woodworth a victim of "a manifest injustice" who should be freed or receive a new trial. The Missouri Supreme Court will now review the case.
Oxenhandler was appointed by the high court in November 2010 as special master and was tasked with reviewing new evidence submitted as part of Woodworth's latest appeal.
Woodworth was 16 years old when Cathy Robertson was fatally shot in 1990 as she slept in her rural home outside Chillicothe, a farming community 90 miles north of Kansas City. Lyndel Robertson, her husband, was shot four times but survived the attack and later testified against Woodworth, who was charged with the killing three years later.
He was first convicted in a 1995 jury trial, and after being briefly released on appeal, a second jury convicted him in 1999.
Oxenhandler determined state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters — between a Livingston County judge, state and local prosecutors and Lyndel Robertson — that could cast doubt on Woodworth's guilt. The Missouri Attorney General's Office subsequently argued that Woodworth's previous attorneys saw one of the disputed letters and used it as trial evidence.
The prosecutor at Woodworth's first trial was Kenny Hulshof, who went on to serve six terms in Congress but whose career as a special state prosecutor was marked by rulings that questioned his courtroom behavior. Two men he helped convict for murder have 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.
Robertson, from his hospital bed after the shooting, initially identified his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend as the likely shooter, according to court records. But he later testified that he only named that man, who denied involvement, as a possible suspect.
The letters were first publicly disclosed by The Associated Press in 2009 as part of an investigation into the Woodworth case and Hulshof's prosecutorial record.
Rhonda Robertson Oesch, the victim's daughter, said Oxenhandler's ruling "ignores" the state's case against Woodworth and discounts the prior work of two juries and several appellate judges.
"This decision could put at risk every jury conviction and every appellate court decision in Missouri, which will make it virtually impossible for a victim's family to ever trust the finality of a conviction," she said in a written statement.
Oesch said that the Robertston family recently met with Attorney General Chris Koster, whom she described as supportive of a possible third trial for Woodworth. But should the state Supreme Court vacate his conviction, the decision to hold a trial would be up to the Livingston County prosecutor, not the state.