CHILLICOTHE, Mo. (AP) — Balloons, flowers, hugs and a hero's welcome greeted Mark Woodworth when he walked out of jail on a cold Friday in February, free to return to his northern Missouri home for the first time in 13 years while awaiting a third murder trial in his neighbor's 1990 death.
To his supporters, Woodworth's innocence is obvious. The neighbor's family sees a cold-blooded killer who could get away with murder. For the 38-year-old Woodworth, the taste of a possibly permanent freedom comes at a cost.
The state Supreme Court in January overturned Woodworth's second conviction in the fatal shooting of Cathy Robertson. But he's cautious — reluctant even — to buy a car, find a girlfriend, consider going back to school or look for work beyond his father's machine shop until he can clear his name.
"I feel like I'm free, but I'm also hesitant to do stuff," he said in an interview with The Associated Press, his first extensive public comments since being released Feb. 15 on a $50,000 bond. "I'm scared to go to trial again. For real. But it would be nice to have a jury come back and say, 'Not guilty.'"
Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox said the case raises a more fundamental question for Chillicothe, a farming town of 9,500 located 90 miles northeast of Kansas City: How to restore residents' shaken trust in the local legal system and in each other?
Cox said county court administrators have had a difficult time choosing impartial jurors for trials that have nothing to do with Woodworth because of lingering concerns over the system's integrity.
"For the vast majority, they just want the right thing done. Whatever that is," said Cox, who took office in 2000 after defeating the former chief deputy, who was in charge of the Woodworth investigation. Cox since has worked to help Woodworth get a new trial and testified on his behalf.
Woodworth was 16 when Cathy Robertson, 41, was killed. Never much for school, the high school dropout was content to help tend to farmland bought years earlier by his father and Cathy's husband, Lyndel Robertson, when the men moved together from Illinois. Lyndel Robertson also was shot several times but survived.
Woodworth was first convicted in 1995, then briefly released on appeal but convicted by a second jury in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison.
Former Missouri attorney general Jay Nixon, now a second-term Democratic governor, appointed assistant Kenny Hulshof as special prosecutor in 1993 after the local prosecutor expressed doubts about the case and declined to file charges against Woodworth. The former county prosecutor told a judge Lyndel Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man" — his eldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend.
Nearly a quarter-century after Cathy Robertson's death, the crime and its subsequent re-airings continue to torment Chillicothe, as well as the succeeding generations of the two families.
Birthday party invitations must be carefully monitored, lest a Robertson descendant inadvertently invite a young classmate from the Woodworth clan, or vice versa. There are awkward encounters at the grocery store and high school football games, and a war of words on dueling Facebook pages: Mark Woodworth, The One Innocent Man vs. Peace for Cathy.
John Quinn, a Chillicothe farmer and former Missouri state legislator, compared the unsettled verdict on Cathy Robertson's death to an open wound that has yet to heal. He too has his doubts about the administration of law and order in town.
"I've always believed in the judicial system before but now I have my doubts," he said. "(A new trial) is something that's needed to happen for a long time."
Robertson family spokeswoman Susan Ryan said the case has been wrongly characterized as a manufactured, small-town family feud.
"The community seems to think it's the Woodworths against the Robertsons," she said. "It's not. It's the state against Mark Woodworth."
For Ryan and her clients, Woodworth's calm, quiet demeanor belies his true identity. They point to forensic evidence that included an incriminating fingerprint on a box of bullets in Lyndel Robertson's shed — evidence solidified with the help of a private detective the family hired when the initial county investigation stalled.
"The state of Missouri has twice proven, and will prove again through forensic evidence, that Mark Woodworth took his father's gun from his home and brutally shot our mother and father," the family said in a statement issued after Woodworth was released.
Last week, Woodworth's attorney filed a motion asking that the private detective's evidence to be tossed, suggesting the investigator encouraged the British forensics expert to distort the results.
Woodworth is next due in court for a March 18 preliminary hearing. He expects his attorney to request a change of venue given the case's notoriety in Livingston County. Jurors in the previous trials came from neighboring Clinton County.
Rhonda Oesch, who was 15 and the oldest child at home when her mother was killed, said the Robertsons only recently agreed to publicly discuss the case, partly in response to the vocal support Woodworth has received.
"We're resolved in the fact that he's the guilty party, and we want to see justice," she said, at the same time acknowledging a third trial would be both "traumatic" and "overwhelming."
Claude Woodworth, Mark's father, said having his son home is "like a big load of bricks are off my shoulders." He hopes — and expects — the homecoming will be permanent.
"I don't think there's any doubt it's going to work out," Claude Woodworth said. "I can't imagine it won't."
Free Mark Woodworth, www.facebook.com/Mark.Woodworth.TheOneInnocent.Man
Mark Woodworth Innocence Project, http://on.fb.me/VXO4xI
Peace for Cathy, http://on.fb.me/XQ9Qky
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier