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Nevada: Woman Freed After 35 Years Sues for Wrongful Murder Conviction

by Lonnie Burton

Homophobic police officers in Reno, Nevada framed a mentally ill woman for a murder she did not commit by labeling her a lesbian, withholding evidence and coercing a confession from her, her attorneys claimed in a lawsuit filed in August 2016. The woman spent 35 years in prison until 2014, when DNA evidence finally cleared her of a 1976 murder.

Cathy Woods, now 67, was arrested after she “confessed” to killing a nursing student while confined in a mental institution. After Woods’ mental health counselor broke patient-doctor confidentiality by reporting Woods to the police, the complaint alleges, she was tried and convicted in 1980 for killing 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell, a freshman at the University of Nevada in Reno. Woods was convicted again in 1985 after the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial in her case.

During her decades in prison, Woods, who was reportedly schizophrenic, maintained her innocence and recanted her confession, which she said was coerced in exchange for a better room at the mental hospital. A break came in 2014, when a cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime was tested for DNA. The test results revealed that a San Francisco-area serial killer--Rodney L. Halbower, a/k/a the “Gypsy Hill Killer”--was the source of the butt.

“From a prosecution perspective, [Woods] is no longer a suspect,” said Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks. “She no longer has to worry about being prosecuted for this murder.” Woods had been scheduled for a third trial, which was canceled with Hicks’ announcement.

Woods’ lawyers blasted Reno police and prosecutors for their conduct in investigating and prosecuting her. They pointed out, for example, that she was charged and prosecuted even though numerous witnesses said they saw a man leaving the crime scene.

“Despite multiple witness reports of a man fleeing the scene of the crime, the officers with no evidence concocted a homophobic theory that Ms. Woods is a lesbian, that her ‘mannish’ appearance explained the witness reports, and that she murdered Ms. Mitchell for rejecting her sexual advances,” said Edmund Gorman, Jr., one of Woods’ attorneys.

The lawsuit also accuses police officers of coercing and fabricating “statements attributed to Ms. Woods they knew to be false and involuntary.”

There was no recording of Woods’ confession, nor any written statement from her. In addition, her attorneys accused police and prosecutors of withholding footprint evidence that indicated Woods’ feet were too small compared to prints left at the crime scene.

The suit seeks damages for civil rights violations, malicious prosecution, failure to intervene, conspiracy, abuse of process and emotional distress.

“All I can say right now is that we will defend the city,” said Reno City Attorney Karl Hall.

In addition to Gorman, Woods is represented by the law firm of Loevy & Loevy. The case remains pending, with the parties engaging in discovery. See: Woods v. City of Reno, U.S.D.C. (D. Nev.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00494-MMD-WGC.

Sources: www.usatoday.com, Associated Press, Reno Gazette-Journal, www.courthousenews.com, www.thedailybeast.com

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Related legal case

Woods v. City of Reno

 

 

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