A Missouri judge ruled Tuesday that a man twice convicted in the 1990 slaying of a local farm wife was the victim of "a manifest injustice" and that no jury would have convicted him had investigators done their jobs.
Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case, said prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence to Mark Woodworth's lawyers and overlooked numerous conflicts of interest among prosecutors, a judge and law enforcement.
Woodworth was 16 when his neighbor, Cathy Robertson, was fatally shot as she slept in her rural home in Chillicothe, a farming community 90 miles north of Kansas City. He was charged nearly three years later, with prosecutors basing their case on a single fingerprint found on an ammunition box inside Robertson's shed and a common manufacturing defect in his father's handgun.
Woodworth, whose father farmed with Robertson's husband, was sentenced to life in prison.
"There was nothing fundamentally fair about the investigation of the Robertson crimes, or in turn, Woodworth's prosecutions and convictions for those crimes," Oxenhandler wrote in his 35-page ruling, the culmination of his work since a weeklong hearing in June. "Had there been a balanced investigation ... no jury would have convicted Woodworth of the crimes charged."
Bob Ramsey, Woodworth's attorney, said he would petition the Supreme Court to have his client freed on bond while justices decide how to proceed. Oxenhandler recommended that the convictions be set aside, but the Supreme Court will have the final say.
"We won," Ramsey said. "I'm very gratified. I thought we presented some very strong proof that from the beginning, it was a frame-up."
A spokeswoman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which is handling the Woodworth case, said the agency is reviewing the decision. The state has 30 days to file a response.
Oxenhandler determined that state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters that casted doubt on Woodworth's guilt. The letters were between a Livingston County judge, state and local prosecutors and the victim's husband, Lyndel Robertson, who also was shot but survived the attack in his home.
Oxenhandler chastised the county sheriff for allowing a private investigator hired by Lyndel Robertson to "inexcusably" lead the murder inquiry, and said the judge who oversaw grand jury proceedings acted like a prosecutor. He also noted that an attorney who represented Woodworth early in the case had represented the judge and Robertson's daughter in other legal matters.
"Woodworth's constitutionally guaranteed judicial process was ignored," Oxenhandler wrote. "This is a case where the process went bad."
The prosecutor at Woodworth's first trial was Kenny Hulshof, who went on to serve six terms in Congress but whose career as a special state prosecutor was marked by a pattern of court rulings questioning his courtroom behavior. Two men he helped convict for murder have since been released after judges cited prosecutorial misconduct by Hulshof.
Oxenhandler said that while he couldn't determine whether Hulshof and the subsequent state prosecutor, Rachel Smith, intentionally withheld evidence, it wasn't necessary to find intent.
One of the letters not turned over by state prosecutors described how Lyndel Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man." That letter was written by the local prosecutor at the time, Doug Roberts, who said he didn't have solid evidence to charge Woodworth and asked to be removed from the case because of pressure from the judge and Lyndel Robertson to file charges.
From his hospital bed after the shooting, Robertson initially identified his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend as the likely shooter, according court records. But he later testified that he only named that man, who denied involvement, as a possible suspect.
The letters were first publicly disclosed by The Associated Press in 2009 as part of an investigation into the Woodworth case and Hulshof's prosecutorial record.
Hulshof, now a lawyer in private practice specializing in government relations, said through a spokeswoman that he was traveling and had not yet read the ruling.
Although more than two decades have passed since the shootings, interest in the case hasn't diminished in Chillicothe. A group of business owners, former state lawmakers and other community leaders _ including the current sheriff _ have consistently proclaimed Woodworth's innocence, even as Lyndel Robertson and his five children remain convinced of Woodworth's guilt.
On Tuesday, a family spokeswoman said the Robertsons were shocked by the judge's ruling.
"They are absolutely crushed by this opinion," said family representative Susan Ryan. "They really believe the judge has failed them, and failed all crime victims in Missouri, by ignoring the evidence in this case."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier