Saturday, March 7, 2015

New DNA Evidence Frees Woman After 35-years in Prison

When she was just 29-years-old, Cathy Woods (above, now 64) was convicted of stabbing 19-year-old nursing student, Michelle Mitchell, to death on the edge of the University of Nevada campus in 1976. But in September of 2014, Washoe District Judge, Patrick Flanagan, ordered Woods to appear at a retrial July 13, 2015. However, Washoe County District Attorney, Chris Hicks, told a news conference that he’s filing a motion to dismiss the case. “It is our belief that the newly discovered DNA evidence and the continued investigation of this case exonerate Cathy Woods of the murder of Michelle Mitchell,” Hicks said.

The new DNA evidence centers on a cigarette butt found on Michelle’s dead body, which authorities say belongs to Rodney L. Halbower (above), an inmate in an Oregon penitentiary. Halbower is in prison for the deaths of two women who were among five victims in the ‘Gypsy Hill’ murders near San Francisco about the same time Mitchell’s throat was slashed.

Woods was convicted in 1980, and again five years later. The convictions were based largely on the confession she made in 1979, at the psychiatric hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, where her mother committed her months earlier. Prosecutors at those trials argued that only Mitchell’s (above) killer could have known the information Woods provided to police in her confession. The Nevada Supreme Court overturned the initial conviction based partly on the trial judge’s refusal to allow defense attorneys to present evidence that Woods could have learned everything she told investigators from newspaper accounts.

Nevertheless, Woods’ lawyers were unable to persuade the jury in the second trial to disregard her earlier confession, according to her lawyer, public defender, Maizie Pusich. Instead, Pusich said that Woods’ confession was given in an effort to get a private room. Shortly after being told she wasn’t dangerous enough to qualify for a private room, Woods claimed she had killed a woman in Reno…and the rest is history. Woods was at the Southern California home of her brother and his wife when the decision was announced. They have been taking care of Woods since her conviction was tossed and she was released from prison on bail in September.

Rodney Halbower, 66, a native of Muskegon Heights, Michigan, was serving a 30-year sentence for attempted murder in Oregon when he was extradited to San Mateo County in California, and charged in January with murder in the 1976 deaths of Paula Louise Baxter, 17, and Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Anne Cascio, 18, near Pacifica. The FBI announced two days before Woods’ Nevada conviction was vacated that Halbower was a person of interest in the Gypsy Hill murders. Halbower had been arrested for the rape of a 33-year-old woman in Reno in November 1975. He was released on bail and barely a month later the Gypsy Hill murders began in California. Cascio’s body was found January 8, 1976, and Baxter’s on February 4th. Mitchell was killed February 24th

Hicks (above) said Halbower is a suspect in the Nevada murder. His DNA was obtained in 2013, when he was sent to Oregon. “I would love to bring her (Mitchell’s) murderer to justice and we'll do our best,” Hicks said.

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