RENO, Nev. (AP) — Lawyers for a Nevada woman freed two years ago say they now have permission from a federal judge to question witnesses critical to establishing the compensation she deserves after serving three decades in prison for a murder she didn't commit.
Until last week, a judge had prohibited any gathering of evidence or deposition of witnesses in the civil lawsuit Cathy Woods filed in U.S. District Court last August until disputes are resolved about where any trial should be held.
U.S. Magistrate Valerie Cook revised that order last Friday to allow the gathering of evidence before another hearing scheduled in September, including getting information from Louisiana detectives who arrested her in 1979 and other elderly witnesses Woods' lawyers say may not live much longer.
"In short, time is of the essence," David Owens, one of her lawyers based in Chicago, wrote in court filings before last week's ruling. "For (Woods) — who is now 68 years old and has waited nearly 40 years to get justice related to her wrongful conviction — each moment of delay is significant."
Woods was freed in 2015 after new DNA evidence exonerated her in the 1976 killing of Michelle Mitchell in Reno and implicated an Oregon inmate now accused of multiple murders in the San Francisco Bay Area during the same period.
Her lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the city of Reno, Washoe County, an ex-prosecutor and ex-police officers she accuses of coercing a false confession from Woods at a psychiatric hospital in Louisiana in 1979.
In addition to obtaining information about the retired detectives, Woods' legal team also has permission for the first time to take a statement from Woods' mother, Elenora Carter.
Carter, who is in her mid-90s and recently had surgery where she lives in Shreveport, involuntarily committed Woods to the mental hospital. In addition to concerns about the "status of her memory," Owens said Carter "may pass away or become unavailable as a witness due to health reasons."
Two detectives involved in the case have since died — one in the past year and one before Woods was exonerated in the criminal case, Owens said. He said Carter is a key witness.
"As part of their efforts to frame plaintiff, defendants obtained the search warrant for the home of Ms. Carter," he wrote. "They searched her home ... purportedly looking for the murder weapon, even though she lived in Shreveport, not Reno, and the fact that years had passed since the crime."
Lawyers for two other retired Shreveport detectives filed a new motion to dismiss the case in June. They argue the federal court has no authority to hear allegations of wrongdoing that took place in Louisiana before Woods was extradited to Nevada.
"'It is unbridled speculation to assume plaintiff's mother will not be available to testify," defense attorney Edwin Byrd of Shreveport wrote, adding that Woods "cannot seriously contend that memories that have not faded in 30 years will now fade before the motion to dismiss is decided."
Woods' initial conviction in 1980 was overturned by Nevada's Supreme Court. But she was convicted again in 1984, and the high court upheld the conviction in 1988 before a Washoe County judge vacated it in 2014. Prosecutors withdrew the charges in March 2015.
Woods was bartending in Reno when Mitchell was killed in 1976. She later moved to Louisiana, and her mother committed her to the psychiatric hospital. At the hospital, Woods told a counselor about "a girl named Michelle being murdered in Reno."
Her current lawyers say she was extremely psychotic, suffering from chronic schizophrenia and never should have been interrogated.