RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal judge appealed to lawyers on both sides Thursday to try to settle a civil lawsuit filed by an ex-Reno woman wrongly imprisoned for 35 years for a murder she didn’t commit before she was exonerated by DNA evidence tied to a crime-scene cigarette butt.
Cathy Woods, 67, who now lives near Gig Harbor, Washington, is seeking millions of dollars in damages from the city of Reno, former prosecutors and police she accuses of coercing a fabricated confession from her while a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital in 1979.
Woods was released from prison three years ago when newly available DNA evidence linked the 1976 killing of a Reno college student to an Oregon inmate, Rodney Halbower, now accused of multiple slayings in the San Francisco Bay area that occurred about the same time.
During a hearing in Reno, U.S. Magistrate Judge Valerie Cooke set filing deadlines in the civil case for November, but a trial wouldn’t begin before next year.
“This is going to be very complicated case. This is 40 years ago. I have a feeling many of these people are not going to remember much of anything,” Cooke said Thursday. “Wouldn’t it make sense at some point to step back and have a settlement conference and see if the parties can come together here in Reno and try to settle this case?”
Cooke said she wants Woods, who suffers from schizophrenia, to undergo an independent mental health exam to determine whether she’s competent to testify before setting a firm schedule for deposition of dozens of witnesses.
“I have questions about the plaintiff’s mental capacity and physical health so we have to weigh that against the obvious necessity to have her deposed,” she said.
Reno city lawyer Mark Hughs agreed: “The big issue here is the competency of the plaintiff.”
Elizabeth Wang, Woods’ lead attorney, said she is confident Woods is competent.
A National Registry of Exonerations’ database lists Woods as the longest-ever wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history.
Her initial conviction in 1980 was overturned by Nevada’s Supreme Court. But she was convicted again in 1984, and the high court upheld the conviction in 1988 before a Washoe County judge vacated it in 2014.
Wang says Woods was a poorly educated woman with severe mental illness who was “intentionally framed” by authorities for a crime they should have known she didn’t commit. Her lawsuit filed in 2016 alleges malicious prosecution, multiple violations of Woods’ constitutional rights to due process, and civil conspiracy.
Woods was bartending in Reno when 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell was killed in 1976. She later moved to Louisiana, and her mother committed her to the psychiatric hospital where Woods told a counselor about “a girl named Michelle being murdered in Reno.”
Wang said Woods was extremely psychotic and never should have been interrogated.
Among pre-trial disputes still pending, Woods’ lawyers want the U.S. court to block the city’s request for the Nevada Supreme Court to intervene in the case regarding the use of Woods’ confession at her earlier criminal trials.
The city claims she can’t use that argument in her civil case because two state judges and Nevada’s Supreme Court ruled previously the confession was obtained legally.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du ruled in January those rulings no longer apply because the conviction was vacated. But the city wants the high court to weigh in on that legal question, which they say has never been directly addressed in Nevada before.
“Like the criminal case, the civil action is based entirely on Ms. Woods’ ability to challenge her confession,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Large wrote in a motion last month. Without it, he said, Woods’ case “is largely wiped out.”
Washoe County public defender Maizie Pusich told The Associated Press in 2014 Woods didn’t remember confessing while at the hospital.
“I’m told it was a product of wanting to get a private room,” Pusich said. “She was being told she wasn’t sufficiently dangerous to qualify, and within a short period she was claiming she had killed a woman in Reno.”
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