JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the murder conviction of a man who had been sentenced to life in prison for the 1990 slaying of a rural neighbor, ruling that prosecutors failed to share evidence that may have benefited his defense.
The state's high court ordered Mark Woodworth released within 60 days of when its ruling is finalized, unless prosecutors decide to retry him. Woodworth was convicted of fatally shooting Catherine Robertson and wounding her husband, Lyndel Robertson, as they slept in their home near Chillicothe, about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City.
Woodworth, whose father farmed with the Robertsons, 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 Attorney General Chris Koster had promised to retry Woodworth.
"It is also important to note that Mark Woodworth was not exonerated in this court opinion," one of the Robertson's daughters, Rhonda Robertson Oesch, said in a written statement. "His sentence was vacated because of an alleged technical error. That is not justice."
The Missouri attorney general's office, which defended Woodworth's conviction before the Supreme Court, had no immediate comment.
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 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.