COLUMBIA — A northwest Missouri judge on Wednesday barred the state Attorney General's Office from prosecuting for a third time a Chillicothe man convicted of fatally shooting a neighbor more than two decades ago.
Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. ruled that previous prosecutorial missteps that contributed to Mark Woodworth's first two convictions require "an independent review of this case by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation." He also elaborated on the earlier criticisms of a Boone County judge assigned by the state Supreme Court to review the case, citing a "secret investigation" of Woodworth by a private investigator working for the Livingston County sheriff that "permeated, tainted and stained the evidence in this case."
"From the inception of the 'secret investigation' in 1991 through two trials, the concept of due process of law for defendant Woodworth took flight and did not reappear until approximately 2009," Hull wrote. "Given the history of this case, there is absolutely no reason the Office of the Attorney General should prosecute this case."
The ruling means that prosecution in a third murder trial set for July now reverts to Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren. But a Warren predecessor originally refused to file charges against Woodworth, citing concerns about the strength of the evidence, which led to the appointment of the Missouri attorney general.
Woodworth, 39, has been free on bail for nearly one year after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his second conviction in Cathy Robertson's death, saying prosecutors failed to share evidence that could have helped his defense. The evidence was a series of letters shared among Robertson's husband who survived the shooting and initially identified another suspect, a former Livingston judge, and ex-prosecutor Doug Roberts. It was Roberts' reticence to file charges that led to Lyndel Robertson complaining to a judge who removed the local prosecutor and instead summoned a team of special prosecutors from Jefferson City.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said the office does not plan to appeal the ruling. Warren said he will undertake his own review of the state's evidence before making a decision, hopefully within 30 days.
"I'll make my own determination," Warren said.
Defense attorney Robert Ramsey called the ruling a major step forward.
"This is significant," he said. "It's what we wanted all along."
Woodworth was 16 when Cathy Robertson was shot and killed Nov. 13, 1990, in a farm home outside Chillicothe, about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City. Lyndel Robertson was a business partner of Woodworth's father, but the two families had a falling out after the shooting.
Woodworth was first convicted in the death in 1995. That conviction was overturned on appeal, but a second jury found Woodworth guilty four years later and sentenced him to life in prison.
Hull's call for a fresh review of the case follows a similar conclusion in 2012 by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who also recommended a review by an independent prosecutor and called Woodworth's earlier convictions a "manifest injustice."
The Platte County judge has also tossed out key ballistics evidence that was used to implicate Woodworth at his previous trials, ruling that the bullet and weapon could have been tainted by private investigator Terry Deister and a British ballistics expert hired to aid prosecutors. The Missouri Court of Appeals' Western District upheld Hull's ruling that the suspected murder weapon and the bullet surgically removed from Lyndel Robertson's liver two years later may have been improperly handled.
Rhonda Robertson Oesch, the daughter of Cathy Robertson, said in a statement that the family plans to ask Warren to withdraw from the case since the part-time prosecutor has also done legal work for the Robertsons in his private practice.
"The criminal justice system has failed our family once again," she said.