The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a man's murder conviction and life sentence in the 1990 slaying of a rural neighbor, but his prospects for being freed were quickly tempered when the attorney general's office announced it intends to retry him.
The state's high court ruled Tuesday that prosecutors failed to share evidence that may have benefited Mark Woodworth's defense against charges that he fatally shot Catherine Robertson and wounded her husband, Lyndel, as they slept in their home near Chillicothe, about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City.
The court ordered 38-year-old Woodworth released within 60 days of when its decision is finalized, unless prosecutors first file court documents seeking to retry him. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said later in the day that the office would seek a new trial. It would be Woodworth's third murder trial.
Woodworth, whose father farmed with the Robertson's, was 16 at the time of their deaths. He has been fighting for his release for more than a decade and was on a prison phone Tuesday with his attorney when the Supreme Court announced its decision.
"His first word was, 'All right!' Then I think I heard him say 'awesome,'" said his attorney, Bob Ramsey.
The Robertson family described Tuesday's decision as a miscarriage of justice and said they were confident Woodworth would be convicted again.
"[It is] pretty amazing actually. It is the one we have been praying for a long time," said Jackie Woodworth about the phone call she took Tuesday from her son.
"Mark called, and he just said we won," she said.
Ramsey said he plans to ask the state Supreme Court to remove the attorney general's office from Woodworth's case and instead appoint an independent prosecutor to decide whether to pursue it further. Ramsey called Koster an "unscrupulous political animal" and said he intends to call several assistant attorneys general as witnesses if Woodworth is retried.
Woodworth first was convicted in 1995 and, after briefly being released on appeal, was convicted by a second jury four years later.
His attorney argued in the latest appeal that the conviction was "tainted" by prosecutors' failure to turn over evidence that could have cast doubt on Woodworth's guilt and further undermined by new evidence pointing toward a different suspect.
The Supreme Court's 6-0 decision followed a recommendation made last May by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler that Woodworth's conviction should be set aside. Oxenhandler had described Woodworth as a victim of "a manifest injustice."
"The thing is, he's missed out on all the weddings. He's the oldest of seven kids so everybody except for him is married, have families, and he's missed out on all that stuff," Jackie Woodworth said.
Laura O'Sullivan, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's law school, said "it was a weak case to begin with."
O'Sullivan is also a member of the Midwest Innocence Project and helped prepare Mark Woodworth's attorneys for their Supreme Court arguments.
"This was a young boy, a 16-year old boy, that was caught up in the system for the last few decades. That part breaks my heart ... that he had to wait that long," O'Sullivan said.
O'Sullivan says she knew right away by looking at all the court documents that this was something to be taken very seriously.
"There were several red flags you could see right away," she said.
Among those red flags, they say, prosecutors were accused of not handing over information that would've been helpful to the defense, including police reports that would've shown someone else may have had a motive to kill the Robertson's. And letters between the victim's family and the judge in the case are something they say should've been revealed to the defense.
O'Sullivan says while she's breathing a sigh of relief for Mark Woodworth, she is also thinking of the Robertson family, saying the judicial system failed them as well.
"They are the victims here, and they have been working under the belief that the right person was placed in prison, and it's very difficult to grasp that might not be true," O'Sullivan said.
The judge and the Supreme Court based their decisions in part on letters exchanged by Livingston County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lewis, Lyndel Robertson and state and local prosecutors. The letters, first publicly disclosed by The Associated Press in 2009, were not shared with the defense.
Oxenhandler "believed the letters supported the defense claim that it was the persistence of Mr. Robertson and not a fair, thorough review of the case that 'prompted' Judge Lewis to call the grand jury," the Supreme Court said in an opinion written by Judge Laura Denvir Stith. "This would have provided important support for the defense's argument that the investigation of Mark was one-sided and highlighted that the evidence against him was weak and circumstantial."
Oxenhandler also said local authorities should have told defense attorneys that Robertson's daughter, Rochelle, filed police reports alleging that her ex-boyfriend had violated a protection order after her mother's murder.
When asked by authorities who could have killed his wife and attacked him, a hospitalized Lyndel Robertson initially named Rochelle's ex-boyfriend, according to court records. The ex-boyfriend, who lived in a different city, has denied involvement in the murder. But during Oxenhandler's review of the case, several people testified that they had seen the ex-boyfriend in Chillicothe the day of the murder.
While the justices upheld Oxenhandler's conclusions, they stopped short of declaring Woodworth innocent, as he had asked.
Woodworth's attorney said he filed a motion Tuesday asking the court to set a bond for Woodworth's release.
"I think that the evidence that the state has is in such a shambles right now they should go and inform the court that they don't intend to retry him and get it over with," Ramsey said.
The Robertson family says the court's decision did not surprise them, but they're still upset.
Cathy Robertson's daughter said they have plans to see the case all the way through the third trial.
"It is not something you want to be facing, but we're resolved to do it, and we have our mother in mind. We're doing this for her. We don't choose to do it but we're going to do it for her," Rhonda Robertson Oesch said.
Oesch said she has very little doubt Mark Woodworth is guilty She also says her father is holding up but is very emotional.
A new trial date has not been set.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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