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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Wrongful Convictions Of Cathy Woods

     On February 24, 1976, a 19-year-old nursing student at the University of Nevada-Reno named Michelle Mitchell went missing after her car broke down near the campus. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell's body was found in a nearby garage. Her hands were tied behind her back and her throat had been slashed.

     Reno detectives, without any solid leads in the case, were unable to identify a suspect until March 1979. The suspect was a 29-year-old diagnosed psychotic named Cathy Woods, an impatient at a Louisiana mental hospital. The patient's counsellor called the local police and reported that Cathy Woods had said something to the effect that she had been involved in the murder of a girl named Michelle in Reno. The Louisiana authorities passed this information on to detectives working the case in Nevada.

     At the time of Michelle Mitchell's disappearance and murder, Cathy Woods was 26 and working in Reno as a bartender. Following her mental breakdown her mother committed her to the mental institution in Louisiana.

     Reno detectives traveled to Louisiana to question Cathy Woods. When they returned to Nevada they claimed to have acquired a confession from the schizophrenic woman. Washoe County District Attorney Cal Dunlap, on the strength of the confession, charged Cathy Woods with first-degree murder. The authorities extradited her back to Nevada to stand trial.

     At the 1980 murder trial Woods' public defender attorney argued that the state did not have enough evidence to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney pointed out that the prosecutor had no physical evidence connecting his client to the murder, and not one eyewitness who had seen the defendant and the victim together. Moreover, the detectives who had questioned the mentally ill Woods had contrived the so-called confession.

     According to Cathy Woods, she had made up the statement about murdering a girl named Michelle in Reno because the only way to get a private room in the mental institution was to be classified as dangerous.

     The Washoe County jury, after a short deliberation, found Cathy Woods guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to life in prison.

     After the Nevada Supreme Court overturned Cathy Woods' murder conviction, District Attorney Cal Dunlap brought her to trial again. In 1984 the second jury also found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge again sentenced her to life in prison.

     Cathy Woods' attorney appealed the second murder conviction but this time the appellate court upheld the verdict.

     In 2014, more than three decades after Cathy Woods' arrest, a DNA analysis of a Marlboro cigarette found near Michelle Mitchell's body matched the DNA of an inmate in an Oregon prison named Rodney Halbower. Halbower, known as the "Gypsy Hills Killer," had been convicted of murdering and raping six women and girls in San Francisco. The serial killer had also murdered a woman in Oregon and in all probability Michelle Mitchell.

     Based upon the DNA evidence linking Halbower to the Michelle Mitchell murder and the overall weakness of the evidence that led to Cathy Woods' convictions, a Nevada judge, in 2014, vacated her conviction. Less than a year later she walked free after serving more than 35 years behind bars.

     In 2016 Cathy Woods' lawyer filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against former Washoe County District Attorney Cal Dunlap and the state of Nevada. In August 2019 the Washoe County Commissioners voted 4 to 0 to settle Woods' suit for $3 million. 
     Cathy Woods, now 73, has the dubious distinction of being the longest serving wrongfully convicted woman in U.S. history.

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