COLUMBIA, Mo. – The state of Missouri wants a man twice convicted in the 1990 slaying of a Chillicothe farm wife to remain behind bars for life despite a recent ruling that sharply criticized his conviction, the state attorney general's office said Thursday.
The office filed a protest with the state Supreme Court in the case of Mark Woodworth, who was convicted in 1995 in the death of his neighbor, Cathy Robertson, and again in 1999 following an appeal. Robertson's husband, Lyndel, who survived the shooting, was a business partner of Woodworth's father.
The Missouri Supreme Court appointed Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler in 2010 to review the case. Oxenhandler ruled May 1 that Woodworth was the victim of "a manifest injustice" who should either be freed or receive a new trial. The state filed its objections to Oxenhandler's ruling, legally known as exceptions, on the final day of its 30-day deadline to respond.
The judge can choose whether to amend his report based on the state's concerns or take no action. The next step in the case would be a hearing before Missouri's high court.
Woodworth was 16 years old when Cathy Robertson was fatally shot as she slept in her rural home outside Chillicothe, a farming community 90 miles north of Kansas City. Lyndel Robertson was shot four times but survived the attack and later testified against Woodworth, who was charged with the killing three years later.
Oxenhandler determined state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters that could cast doubt on Woodworth's guilt. The letters were between a Livingston County judge, state and local prosecutors and Lyndel Robertson.
But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster responded that Woodworth's previous attorneys, including one who is now a presiding circuit judge in Cass County, "not only saw the letter but ... actually used that letter at trial."
"A conviction should not be overturned based on the inability to remember something when there is demonstrative proof that the same individual forgot seeing something similar," the state wrote.
Oxenhandler said it was "inexcusable" that the county sheriff allowed a private investigator hired by Lyndel Robertson to lead the murder inquiry, and that 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.
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 since have 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 to 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.
In its response, the state implied that Oxenhandler overstepped his assigned role by acting as a 13th "super juror" while considering evidence and drawing conclusions not relevant to the more narrow review required in post-conviction appeals.
"Because the habeas court hears only part of the story — (the) petitioner's part — it should not substitute its judgment for that of the jurors who heard the entire case," the response reads.
Woodworth's attorney, Bob Ramsey, criticized the state's response as more akin to a "public relations firm's press release" than a legally sound argument. The response doesn't address Oxenhandler's concerns about the private investigator who oversaw the murder investigation, he said.
"Here are representatives of the highest law enforcement agency of the state ... and they don't appear to be troubled by any of that in the least," Ramsey said. "Their duty isn't just to the victims. Their duty is to see that justice has been done."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier .