JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of man who was sentenced to life in prison for the slaying of a woman on a neighboring farm in 1990. The state's high court ruled Tuesday that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped Mark Woodworth defend himself, and which might have cast doubt on his guilt.
Woodworth was charged with killing Catherine Robertson in her home in Chillicothe and assaulting her husband, Lyndel, while they slept. Woodworth's father farmed with Robertson's husband. Woodworth was 16 at the time of the murder but was tried as an adult after he was indicted by a grand jury when he was 19 years old.
Juries twice convicted Woodworth of second-degree murder of Catherine Robertson, first-degree burglary and first-degree assault of Lyndel Robertson, and two counts of armed criminal action. After the second trial, a judge sentenced Woodworth to four consecutive life prison sentences plus 15 years.
The first trial was prosecuted by Assistant Attorney General Kenny Hulshof as a special prosecutor appointed the case. An appeals court overturned that conviction because it said Woodworth improperly wasn't allowed to present evidence that another man might have murdered Robertson. The second trial was prosecuted by another assistant attorney general, Rebecca Smith.
Woodworth's attorneys say his conviction was tainted by failure of prosecutors in both trials to turn over copies of letters that cast doubt on his guilt, as well as other evidence that would have benefited the defense. The prosecutors both said they thought defense attorneys knew about the letters, but had no proof of it. The letters also weren't marked and cataloged the same way as other evidence in the prosecutors' files, which had been provided to defense attorneys.
The Supreme Court concluded that the suppresion of the evidence in question caused prejudice against Woodworth at his second trial. It agreed that the case, based only on circumstantial evidence, was so weak that the jury might not have convicted him had it heard about the letters and other evidence not shown to defense attorneys.
"This suppressed evidence along with the totality of the other evidence uncovered following [Woodworth's] last trial showed cause and prejudice and . . . caused sufficient prejudice to undermine confidence in the outcome of the second trial and render the prior verdict no longer worthy of confidence," the Supreme Court's opinion says.
The Supreme Court ordered Woodworth to be released from prison, unless prosecutors decide to retry him. Attorney General Chris Koster said late Tuesday afternoon that he wants to retry Woodworth.
A daughter of the Robertsons, Rhonda Robertson Oesch, criticized the ruling.
Woodworth greeted the ruling with great joy. Attorney Bob Ramsey says he was on the telephone with Woodworth when the Supreme Court announced its decision. He says Woodworth reacted by saying "All right!" and "awesome."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.