Woodworth prosecutor seeks removal
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
ST. LOUIS (AP) — A local prosecutor who inherited the long-running case of a Chillicothe man facing a third murder trial in his neighbor’s shooting death wants to be removed because of Facebook posts he thinks pose a conflict of interest by linking him to efforts to free the twice-convicted felon.
Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren was appointed to the case last week after a northwest Missouri judge barred the state attorney general from again prosecuting Mark Woodworth in Cathy Robertson’s 1990 death. The judge said that previous prosecutorial missteps and a Robertson family private investigator’s “secret investigation” on behalf of the county tainted evidence used to convict Woodworth.
The Associated Press obtained a written request filed by Warren on Monday in Platte County Circuit Court, citing a “social media position which may cast a prejudgment claim” on his ability to independently review the evidence against Woodworth before deciding whether to again file murder charges. Rhonda Oesch, Cathy Robertson’s daughter, said the family met with Warren a day or two after his Jan. 29 appointment to discuss several concerns about his involvement, including online comments made by Woodworth supporters suggesting Warren would not prosecute.
Oesch said she and one of her sisters also hired Warren within the past two years to handle real estate transactions. Like many small-town prosecutors in Missouri, Warren works for the county part time while also keeping a private practice in Chillicothe.
A letter to Warren signed by 12 members of the Robertson family also cites his unsuccessful 2012 campaign for attorney general, in which Warren lost a Republican primary election to Ed Martin, who in turn was defeated by incumbent Chris Koster, a Democrat.
“Your (past) campaign for attorney general makes us nervous that there remains an incentive to embarrass the Attorney General’s Office by not litigating the case,” the letter reads.
“There has to be complete objectivity,” Oesch said in an interview Wednesday. “We would like to see someone with no appearance of impropriety.”
Warren said he was invited to participate in a pro-Woodworth Facebook group but never joined the closed group. He said that while the Robertsons’ other concerns “did not amount to anything,” he asked to be removed “out of an abundance of caution” and after consulting with ethics experts at The Missouri Bar, which licenses the state’s lawyers.
“I’ve got to be very careful,” he said. “I can already tell that whatever happens, it’s going to be a point of contention.”
On Wednesday, Platte Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. set a Feb. 14 evidentiary hearing on Warren’s request to step down.
More than two decades ago, the family’s previous concerns with the reluctance of a Warren predecessor to file charges against Woodworth led to the appointment of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.
Woodworth, 39, has been free on bail for nearly one year after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his second conviction in Robertson’s death, saying prosecutors failed to share evidence that could have helped his defense. The evidence was a series of letters shared among Robertson’s husband Lyndel, who survived the shooting and initially identified another suspect; a former Livingston judge; and ex-prosecutor Doug Roberts. It was Roberts’ reticence to file charges that led Lyndel Robertson to ask the judge to remove the local prosecutor and instead summon a team of special prosecutors from Jefferson City.
Woodworth was 16 when Cathy Robertson was shot and killed Nov. 13, 1990, in a farm home outside Chillicothe, about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City. Lyndel Robertson was a business partner of Woodworth’s father, but the two families had a falling out after the shooting. He was first convicted in the death in 1995. That conviction was overturned on appeal, but a second jury found Woodworth guilty four years later and sentenced him to life in prison.
In a court motion opposing Warren’s request to appoint a special prosecutor, Woodworth’s attorneys cite the earlier efforts to remove a local prosecutor as part of the victim’s family’s “long history of inappropriately attempting to influence the case.”
“They’re just throwing mud against the wall, hoping something will stick,” said defense lawyer Bob Ramsey. “The Robertsons have been playing this game since at least 1992.”
Hull’s call for “an independent review of this case by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation” follows a similar conclusion in 2012 by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who also recommended a review by an independent prosecutor and called Woodworth’s earlier convictions a “manifest injustice.”
The Platte County judge has also tossed out key ballistics evidence that was used to implicate Woodworth at his previous trials, ruling that the bullet and weapon could have been tainted by private investigator Terry Deister and a British ballistics expert hired to aid prosecutors. The Missouri Court of Appeals’ Western District upheld Hull’s ruling that the suspected murder weapon and the bullet surgically removed from Lyndel Robertson’s liver two years later may have been improperly handled.
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