COLUMBIA — State prosecutors seeking a Chillicothe man's third murder conviction in his neighbor's 1990 death will have to pursue the case without vital ballistics evidence.
Mark Woodworth was first convicted in 1995 for shooting Cathy Robertson in her sleep. Her husband, Lyndel Robertson, was shot several times but survived.
Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. ruled Monday that a bullet surgically removed from shooting victim Lyndel Robertson's liver might have been improperly handled by Robertson's private investigator while it was sent overseas for examination by British forensic scientists.
That investigator wound up secretly leading the Livingston County Sheriff's Office inquiry that led to Mark Woodworth's conviction. The Missouri Attorney General's Office also can't discuss the gun allegedly used by Woodworth to shoot the couple, Hull ruled.
"The court finds that there has been an egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard of evidentiary procedures and process," he wrote, singling out private investigator Terry Deister's "especially odious" role in the case and the investigation's "laser-like focus on one individual — Mark Woodworth."
After his initial conviction, Woodworth was briefly released on appeal before a second jury again found him guilty four years later and sentenced Woodworth to life in prison. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction in January over potentially helpful evidence it said Woodworth and his previous attorneys never received. Hull released Woodworth on bail one month later, with his defense attorneys filing the motion to disallow the physical evidence in a case with no eyewitnesses and little else tying the suspect to the crime.
Lyndel Robertson initially said he thought his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend played a role in the shooting, but he later said he was only offering a suggestion, not an identification. As the unsolved case dragged on, Robertson complained to a Livingston County judge about a county prosecutor's reluctance to file charges. Deister also helped his client write that letter.
Deister's role in what he called under oath a "wildcat investigation" was previously criticized by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to review the case in an advisory role.
The Platte County judge's ruling also cited testimony by former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. As a special state prosecutor, Hulshof helped convict Woodworth the first time. He later served six terms in Congress and won the GOP nomination for governor in 2008, but his courtroom conduct has been questioned in two murder cases where the people convicted were later freed.
At a 2011 hearing in Boone County, Hulshof acknowledged having concerns with a Deister letter to the British firearms experts in which the investigator shared his theories about Woodworth's guilt and his difficulties in identifying evidence to support that theory.
Woodworth's lawyers say the letter — in which Deister outlined a desire to "take whatever steps necessary, within reason, to identify this weapon" — improperly influenced the paid expert to reach a conclusion sought by his client, rather than take an impartial approach.
Defense attorney Bob Ramsey said the judge's ruling further weakens what he called an already shoddy case. Ramsey said he might next file a motion to dismiss the charges entirely, though he's confident that his client would prevail in a retrial.
"It certainly is a major, major roadblock for them to overcome," he said. "This was a weak case that came down to the ballistics. Without that, they just don't have anything."
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said prosecutors are reviewing the ruling. Koster's office had declined a previous Associated Press request to interview Koster directly about the case.
Woodworth was a 16-year-old high school dropout when Cathy Robertson, 41, was killed. He helped his father and Lyndel Robertson on their farm. The men and their families had moved together to northern Missouri from western Illinois but severed their ties after the shooting.