PLATTE CITY, Mo. (AP) - A judge refused Thursday to order Gov. Jay Nixon to testify in the third murder trial of a northwest Missouri man who was indicted by a grand jury and twice prosecuted when Nixon was the state's top prosecutor.
Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. denied the motion by lawyers for Mark Woodworth following a brief hearing.
Woodworth is facing a retrial for the 1990 killing of Cathy Robertson, a neighbor in Chillicothe. He was convicted in 1995 but later freed on appeal. A second jury convicted him four years later and sentenced Woodworth to life in prison. But the state Supreme Court threw out that conviction in January, and Woodworth is now facing a third trial.
Woodworth sought to depose Nixon about his knowledge of a series of letters between state and local prosecutors, a Livingston County judge and Robertson's husband, who was shot several times while asleep with his wife but survived the attack. From his hospital bed, Lyndel Robertson indicated his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend was the likely shooter, but later testified he was only making a suggestion, not an eyewitness identification.
As attorney general, Nixon appointed special state prosecutor Kenny Hulshof to the Robertson case after the Livingston County prosecutor refused to press charges, citing his doubts about the case.
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Holliger, arguing for the state, told the judge Thursday there was "no legitimate reason shown for the taking of Nixon's deposition and interruption of his official duties."
Woodworth's lawyer, Robert Ramsey, acknowledged afterward that the effort to compel Nixon's testimony was a long shot.
"Let's say it's an unusual set of legal circumstances and there's not a lot of legal precedent one way or another," Ramsey said.
Woodworth was a 16-year-old high school dropout when the Robertsons were shot. Woodworth's father and Lyndel Robertson were farming partners and lived across the street from one another on a rural highway just west of Chillicothe. The families severed their ties after the shooting.
In throwing out his 1999 conviction, the Missouri Supreme Court cited a series of letters shared among Lyndel Robertson, the Livingston County judge who convened the grand jury, and state and local prosecutors. Justices said the letters were never provided to Woodworth's attorneys.
Attorney General Chris Koster's office has said the matter of the letters is moot, since the state Supreme Court already ruled on the issue. Court transcripts from Oct. 15, 1993, show that Nixon accompanied Hulshof to the grand jury hearing, but there's no further indication in public documents that he was otherwise directly involved in Woodworth's prosecution.
Explaining Nixon's reasons for attending the grand jury proceedings, Holliger said that Nixon -who began his political career as a state senator from 1987 to 1993 - may have wanted to see the legal hearings up close since he had not previously worked as a local prosecutor before his 1993 election as attorney general.
Hulshof went on to serve six terms in Congress and win the Republican nomination for governor in 2008 before losing to Nixon. Hulshof's prosecutorial record has since come under scrutiny after a succession of court rulings questioning his courtroom behavior. Also, two men he helped convict for murder have been released after judges cited prosecutorial misconduct by Hulshof.
Woodworth is free on bond and attended Thursday's hearing.
"I'm waiting for the next step," Woodworth said. "I think it's going to end up in my favor, but it's going to be a slow process."
Hull had ruled earlier that a bullet surgically removed from Lyndel Robertson's liver and the gun Woodworth reportedly used could have been improperly handled by a private investigator. The ballistic evidence was sent overseas for examination by British forensic scientists and cannot be used in the upcoming trial, according to the ruling. The state is appealing it.