ST. LOUIS (AP) - A state appeals court ruled Tuesday that if prosecutors are going to secure a third murder conviction against Mark Woodworth for the death of his Chillicothe neighbor in 1990, they'll have to do it without key ballistics evidence introduced in his previous two trials.
The Missouri Court of Appeals' Western District agreed with a Platte County judge who ruled in April that the ballistics evidence shouldn't be allowed at the next trial.
The court found that the suspected murder weapon and a bullet surgically removed from shooting survivor Lyndel Robertson's liver two years later may have been improperly handled by a private investigator hired by the victim. The investigator later teamed up with the Livingston County sheriff's deputy overseeing the investigation - a move the Missouri Supreme Court said in a separate ruling led to "serious investigative misconduct."
Not being able to present the weapon and bullet would be a significant blow to the state's case, especially after several witnesses have come forward in recent years and implicated another suspect who had both motive and opportunity to attack Robertson and his wife Cathy while they slept in their rural home.
Woodworth was first convicted in 1995 of killing Cathy Robertson, whose husband and Woodworth's father were long-time farming partners before a business dispute unraveled their relationship. That conviction was overturned on appeal, but a second jury found Woodworth guilty four years later and sentenced him to life in prison. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned his second conviction in January over evidence it said Woodworth and his previous lawyers never received.
Lyndel Robertson initially implicated his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend, Brandon Thomure, in a hospital interview but later said he was mistaken. The investigation had stalled until Robertson hired private investigator Terry Deister, who in turn sent the bullet and weapon for review by a British ballistics expert
Woodworth, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, remains free on bail pending a possible retrial. Defense attorney Bob Ramsey said he was not surprised by the ruling of the three-judge panel.
"We felt all along that the law and the facts were on our side," he said. "They're going forward with a case (where) they know they have nothing - no evidence which connects Mark Woodworth to the crime."
A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said state prosecutors are reviewing the Kansas City-based court's new ruling. The appeals court said the state can pursue other legal challenges, which Ramsey said he expects based on previous comments by prosecutors.
"They will do everything to delay the inevitable," he said, referring to the state's legal efforts.
At a March hearing before Platte Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr., forensics consultant Daniel Jackson testified that the bullet recovered from Lyndel Robertson looked different in a crime scene photo than how it was described by the doctor who removed it.
Jackson, a former St. Louis County detective, also described a gap in the placement and handling of the bullet - called the chain of custody by law enforcement officers. He said it raises questions about the integrity of the investigation that led to Woodworth's conviction.
In his April ruling, Hull concluded that "there has been an egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard of evidentiary procedures and process." He singled out what he described as Deister's "especially odious" role in the case and the investigation's "laser-like focus on one individual - Mark Woodworth."