RENO, Nev. (AP) - After the case was dropped against a Nevada woman who spent 35 years in prison for a 1976 murder she did not commit, both sides agreed on one point: justice was finally served thanks to new technology in DNA testing.
Cathy Woods became the latest innocent person in the country to be cleared by DNA evidence after prosecutors announced Friday there will be no retrial of her in the fatal stabbing of 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell on the edge of the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
A judge tossed Woods’ conviction in September after new DNA tests linked the Reno crime to an Oregon inmate who now faces charges near San Francisco in a string of killings about the same time.
Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said he didn’t fault earlier police, prosecutors and juries for sending Woods to prison because they didn’t have “the incredible tool of DNA.”
“Whenever we hear about these rare cases where convicted individuals are later exonerated by DNA, it is a circumstance that upsets our society, rightly so,” Hicks said at a news conference. “It is also depicted as a strike against our modern day criminal justice system. I would suggest otherwise.
“These exonerations, 30 and 40 years later, show how improved our criminal justice system has become. So as tragic and difficult as this case continues to be, the one shining light is that it shows our modern day system is working,” he added.
Woods’ public defender, Maizie Pusich, agreed, saying earlier authorities and juries simply lacked DNA evidence.
“I wish it (Woods’ exoneration) happened a long time ago, but at least it happened now when she’s in relatively good health,” Pusich told The Associated Press. “As time goes by, there will be innocent people in prison who slip through the cracks because they won’t survive much longer.”
Woods, 64, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. She lives in the Southern California home of her brother and his wife, both of whom care for her. She remains under mental health treatment and is “doing well,” Pusich said.
She was convicted in 1980 and again five years later. The convictions were based largely on the confession she made in 1979 at a psychiatric hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, where her mother committed her months earlier.
The former Reno resident does not remember acknowledging the killing while hospitalized, Pusich said.
The FBI says DNA found on a Marlboro cigarette butt at the Reno crime scene suggests the real killer is Rodney Halbower, a former Oregon inmate recently charged in the deaths of two women who were among five victims in the “Gypsy Hill” murders in Northern California about the same time Mitchell was killed.
Pusich said Woods is “very lucky” Halbower was required to submit a DNA sample by law in 2013 after he was paroled from prison in Nevada and transferred to an Oregon prison to begin serving a 30-year sentence for attempted murder. He was serving time in Nevada for an unrelated 1975 rape.
Woods also is fortunate a fellow female inmate was aware of the legal process to get Halbower’s DNA tested and initiated it by filing paperwork, Pusich said.
“It (DNA testing) only happened because he was transferred from Nevada to Oregon,” she said. “Before that, we knew the DNA on the cigarette butt wasn’t hers. But the DNA test proved it was definitely his.”
Halbower, 66, a native of Muskegon Heights, Michigan, was serving the sentence in Oregon when he was extradited to San Mateo County in California, and charged in January with murder in the 1976 deaths of Paula Louise Baxter, 17, and Veronica “Ronnie” Anne Cascio, 18, near Pacifica.
Halbower had been arrested for the rape of a 33-year-old woman in Reno in November 1975. He was released on bail and barely a month later the Gypsy Hill murders began in California. Cascio’s body was found Jan. 8, 1976, and Baxter’s on Feb. 4. Mitchell was killed Feb. 24.
Hicks said Halbower now is a suspect in the Nevada murder.
Pusich said Woods is relieved she no longer lives under the threat of prosecution and is “trying to figure out what comes next” in her life. She faces a challenge of adjusting to new technology such as emails and laptop computers, she said, and hopes to travel to Louisiana for her mother’s 92nd birthday in April.
“She’s delighted this is finally at an end,” Pusich said. “She’s also very lucky because she has a family who can care for her and are qualified to take care of her.”
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