July 15 was a great day for Mark Woodworth, who learned that the murder charge that wrongly sent him to prison for 17 years has finally been dismissed.
The question now is who will atone for the thousands of bad days endured by Woodworth and his family in Chillicothe because of a prosecution that a judge who reviewed the case has called “a manifold injustice”?
Woodworth was a quiet 16-year-old in November 1990 when someone murdered his neighbor, Cathy Robertson, and wounded her husband with a bullet as they were sleeping. Unable to solve the crime, the Livingston County sheriff’s department turned the investigation over to a private investigator hired by the Robertson family.
The investigator zeroed in on the Woodworth family. Livingston County authorities improperly gave him access to investigative files and accepted his narrative that targeted Woodworth and excluded a different suspect.
Woodworth was tried twice, in 1993 and 1991, and found guilty both times. But reviews of both trials found that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have been useful to the defense.
The prosecutor in the first case was an assistant Missouri attorney general, Kenny Hulshof, who would go on to become a congressman.
An investigation by The Star in 2011 counted 13 murder cases in which Hulshof was involved that resulted in allegations of misconduct. In six of those, courts threw out convictions or overturned death sentences.
Like Woodworth, some of those defendants served extensive time. Dale Helmig and Josh Kezer were locked up for 15 years each before their convictions were thrown out. In both cases, judges harshly criticized Hulshof’s conduct.
Under Missouri’s weak statute granting compensation for some wrongfully convicted people, innocence must be confirmed by DNA evidence, which doesn’t apply in Woodworth’s case.
His lawyer may file a civil suit on Woodworth’s behalf, although Hulshof, now in private practice at Polsinelli in Jefferson City, would have immunity for actions undertaken within his official duties as prosecutor. Others involved in the murder investigation that wrongly targeted Woodworth might have more exposure.
In the meantime, Hulshof’s actions deserve scrutiny from the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, an agency of the Missouri Supreme Court that investigates misconduct allegations against members of the Missouri Bar.
Hulshof’s troubling prosecutions have cost Woodworth, Helmig and Kezer a total of 47 wasted years in prison, yet beyond critical news reports he has suffered no consequences. If the designated guardian of legal ethics in Missouri isn’t looking into that situation, it should be.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.