CHILLICOTHE (AP) - A Missouri man whose conviction in the 1990 slaying of a rural neighbor was recently overturned by the state Supreme Court was freed on bond Friday as the state prepares for a third murder trial in the case.
Mark Woodworth, 38, walked out of the Livingston County jail at midday Friday, hours after a judge's order releasing him on a $50,000 bond. He repeatedly said he was overwhelmed by the prospect of freedom.
"It's an awesome feeling. I thank everybody for all the support," Woodworth said after leaving the jail, where nearly 100 friends, relatives and well-wishers braved the cold to greet him. Woodworth hugged many in the crowd and said they had lifted his spirits during his imprisonment.
"They've kept me going," he said. "I'm speechless."
Woodworth has been serving a life sentence in the fatal shooting of Cathy Robertson, the wife of his father's farming partner. His latest conviction was thrown out in January when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters that cast doubt on Woodworth's guilt.
After the Supreme Court's ruling, Attorney General Chris Koster quickly announced he would try Woodworth again.
Woodworth was 16 when Robertson was killed and her husband shot several times while the couple slept in their house directly across a county highway from the Woodworth home. Lyndel Robertson survived the attack.
He initially told friends and police that he suspected his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend as the shooter, but he later testified that he never actually identified the shooter.
The letters cited by the state Supreme Court in overturning Woodworth's conviction were between a Livingston County judge, state and local prosecutors and Lyndel Robertson.
A letter written by one prosecutor, Doug Roberts, said Lyndel Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man." But Roberts also said he didn't have solid evidence to charge Woodworth and asked to be removed from the case because the judge and Lyndel Robertson were pressuring him to file charges. Details of the letters were first reported by The Associated Press in 2009.
After the county prosecutor declined to charge Woodworth, Livingston County's presiding judge, at Robertson's request, asked the state to take the case. The attorney general appointed special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, an assistant attorney general who would later serve six terms in Congress and win the Republican nomination for governor but whose courtroom conduct has been questioned in two murder cases where the people convicted were later freed.
Woodworth was first convicted in 1995. He was then briefly released on appeal but convicted by a second jury four years later in a case handled by another state prosecutor.
Bob Ramsey, Woodworth's attorney, said the low bond bodes well for Woodworth's chances of acquittal.
"I don't want to try to read the judge's mind, but it's reflective of his recognition that there were a lot of problems with this case," he said.
Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce testified that the state did not oppose Woodworth's release pending trial but suggested a $500,000 bond.
In a letter to the judge opposing Woodworth's release, Robertson's relatives expressed fear that they would be harassed by Woodworth and his many supporters, who they said could also try to intimidate witnesses in the next trial.
"We have suffered continuously at the hand of his actions and if he is released into our community, we believe our safety would be compromised," the family wrote.
Susan Ryan, a family spokeswoman, said the Robertsons expected Woodworth to be released and criticized those who she said overlooked the fact that he had been found guilty.
"The Robertsons are the real victims in this," she said. "Mark Woodworth is no hometown hero."
Ryan added that she and others believe the Supreme Court ruling was based on a legal technicality and was not a declaration of Woodworth's innocence.
"If they thought he was innocent, they would have said so," Ryan said. "He was not exonerated. The evidence still puts the bullets in Mark's pocket, and the gun in his hands. Unfortunately, that's what people forget."
Woodworth was in a state prison until recently but transferred to the county jail at the Supreme Court's order. The high court's unanimous ruling followed a similar conclusion by a Boone County judge who was appointed to review the case.
Woodworth's father, Claude Woodworth, said the family had kept the Christmas tree up and had presents waiting for him. On Saturday, they planned a fish fry to celebrate the February birthdays of Woodworth's two younger brothers. They also adopted three dogs Woodworth trained in a prison program.
"It's just wonderful," his father said. "The best day we've had in a long time."