Mark Woodworth: A Juvenile Railroaded
By Laurinda Davison
Edited by Jeff Rigsby
Ten years ago, Mark Woodworth was a 16-year-old high school student working on his father's farm in western Missouri, a few miles north of the town of Chillicothe. By all accounts, Mark was a mild-mannered and hard-working boy, doing poorly in school but committed to a career in farming.
Mark's plans for his future began to unravel just before midnight on November 13, 1990, when an assailant entered the house of the Woodworths' neighbors, Lyndel and Catherine Robertson, and shot them six times with a .22 caliber weapon as they lay in bed. Catherine Robertson was struck in the head and chest and died instantly, while her husband survived four bullet wounds to his face and shoulder.
In October 1993, almost three years after the attack, Mark Woodworth was indicted on five counts of murder, assault, armed criminal action and burglary. A jury convicted him on all five counts in March 1995.
His convictions were set aside on appeal in February 1997 by an appeals court, which ordered a new trial and commented that "certainly the State's case was thin, and had we been on the jury we might well have voted to acquit." But in a decision that stunned and outraged many members of the community, Mark was convicted again at his second trial in November 1999.
Why are so many people in Chillicothe convinced that Mark Woodworth is innocent? Take a look at the evidence:
Shortly after the attack, Lyndel Robertson told at least eight people, including his private physician and police officers who questioned him in the hospital, that he had been shot by his teenaged daughter's boyfriend, Brandon Thomure. The police were unable to build an airtight case against Thomure, despite other evidence pointing to him as a suspect -- and by the time Mark Woodworth came to trial, Lyndel Robertson had changed his story and claimed on the witness stand that he had not seen the assailant.
The jury in Mark's first trial was allowed to hear testimony from only one of the people who had heard Lyndel accuse Brandon Thomure of shooting him -- the other witnesses were excluded because Lyndel had told them only that he "thought" Brandon was the gunman.
The prosecution failed to show any convincing reason why Mark Woodworth would have tried to kill the Robertsons. The only motive introduced at his trial was an alleged business dispute between the Robertsons and the Woodworth family, who were partners in a farming operation at the time of the shooting. Lyndel Robertson's uncorroborated testimony was the only evidence that such a dispute existed in 1990, and he first made the allegations only after Mark's father, Claude Woodworth, terminated the partnership in March 1991 and sued Lyndel for embezzlement.
Chris Ruoff, a witness who testified at both trials, contacted the police after the attack and told them he had seen a dark-colored Bronco or Blazer parked in the driveway of the Robertsons' residence at around the time of the shooting. Neither the Robertsons nor the Woodworths owned a vehicle of this description, and since the two families' houses were located only a few hundred feet apart, it is highly unlikely that Mark would have driven to the Robertsons' home if he had committed the crime.
The prosecution tried repeatedly to discredit Ruoff's statement, and produced contradicting testimony from Gary Calvert, the sheriff's deputy who headed the original investigation of the case. This was in spite of corroborating testimony from the Robertsons' son Scott, who told police at one point that he had heard a car start up and drive away from the house shortly after he was awakened that night.
The only physical evidence linking Mark to the crime was his father's ownership of a .22 caliber Ruger pistol -- identical to one Lyndel Robertson kept in his pickup truck -- as well as a single thumbprint on a box of .22 shells found in a shed on the Robertsons' property.
Mark Woodworth had routine access to the shed, which also contained farm machinery used by the two families in their partnership, and both Mark and other witnesses testified that he had handled the box of shells while target shooting with Lyndel. Ballistic tests by three separate laboratories were unable to state with certainty that the bullets found in the Robertsons' bodies had come from the Woodworths' gun.
All in all, the case against Mark Woodworth was incredibly weak -- which probably explains why he was never taken seriously as a suspect for nearly two years. The initial investigation into the crime focused almost exclusively on Brandon Thomure as a suspect, and uncovered strong evidence pointing to him as the assailant. On the day after the shooting, police took a statement from Brandon and swabbed his hands for gunpowder. Brandon denied any involvement and claimed he had been at his home in Independence, Missouri, about 100 miles from the Robertsons' home, on the night of the attack.
However, the swab tests revealed powder residue on Brandon's hands, indicating he had recently fired a gun. The police also found evidence that Brandon had behaved violently in the past towards his girlfriend, the Robertsons' daughter Rochelle. When interviewed, several witnesses said they had either seen Brandon hit Rochelle or had been told of the abuse by Rochelle herself.
Rochelle's own behavior also suggested that she believed her boyfriend was involved in the attack on her parents. On November 20, 1990, seven days after the shooting, she filed a petition with the Circuit Court of Livingston County, Missouri -- for an order of protection against Brandon Thomure. In the petition, she made the following statements about Brandon: "He has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls to me since November 1. He may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father on November 13." Investigators also found that Rochelle had undergone an abortion shortly after her mother's death.
Mark Woodworth and his family were questioned by the local coroner and prosecuting attorney on November 14, 1990, the day after the shooting. At that time, Mark's father, Claude Woodworth, produced his .22 Ruger and stated that he had found it undisturbed on top of the dresser where it was usually kept.
Two days later, two officers from the Livingston County Major Case Squad returned to the Woodworths' house and asked to take the gun away for ballistic tests. (The Ruger from Lyndel Robertson's pickup truck had also been handed over for testing at this point.) Claude Woodworth produced the weapon and pointed out that there was dust on both the gun and its holster -- a comment later corroborated by a defense witness at Mark's trial, who had been present when the gun was handed over. The gun was eventually returned to Claude Woodworth on March 25, 1991. In the same month, Mark dropped out of high school and began working full-time on his father's farm.
Despite Lyndel Robertson's direct accusations against Brandon Thomure and other evidence creating a strong potential case, the police were never able to overcome Brandon's alibi and bring charges against him. Mark Woodworth, on the other hand, was never even identified as a prime suspect during the initial investigation.
Things began to change in early spring 1991, when Lyndel Robertson hired a private investigator named Terry Deister to reexamine the case. By this time, his partnership with Mark's father, Claude Woodworth, had come to an end, and Claude had filed suit against Lyndel for allegedly diverting funds from their joint farming business.
Deister accepted the contract from Lyndel only on condition that he get full cooperation from the Livingston County Sheriff's Office -- which had failed to make any progress on the case in the months after Catherine Robertson's murder. Sheriff Leland O'Dell and his chief deputy, Gary Calvert, who had supervised the Major Case Squad in its earlier investigation, agreed to assist Deister with his research.
Even so, it was not until more than a year later -- nearly two years after the shooting -- that the local police, with Deister's encouragement, began to focus on Mark Woodworth as a possible suspect.
On the morning of July 4, 1992, while Mark's parents were away visiting relatives in Illinois, Deister and Calvert called the Woodworth family home and made sure that Mark was home alone. They then asked Mark to accompany them to the Livingston County Sheriff's Department, where he was advised of his rights, fingerprinted and questioned for just over four hours. The questioning took place with no juvenile officer present, even though Mark was a minor at the time. (Significantly, Deister was allowed to sit in on the interrogation, even though he had never been officially deputized and had no law enforcement authority in Livingston County.) Mark consistently maintained his innocence throughout the interview.
On Easter Sunday, April 11, 1993, again when Mark's parents were away visiting relatives in Illinois, Deister and Calvert again called him at home and asked him to come in for questioning, where he was grilled for another four hours and continued to deny any involvement with the shootings.
In October 1993, a grand jury in Livingston County indicted Mark Woodworth on five counts of murder, attempted murder, burglary, and armed criminal action. Mark was arrested and taken to Livingston County Jail, where he remained for more than a year, until his trial in March 1995.
Shortly after his arrest on October 20, 1993, Mark's original attorney, Gene McFaden, advised him to go voluntarily with two sheriff's deputies to St. Joseph, Missouri, around 70 miles from Chillicothe, to take a polygraph test. During the trip, the deputies continually harassed and badgered him.
After reviewing the results of the test, the polygraph examiner concluded that Mark had "showed deception" in his responses under questioning. He then began interrogating Mark again while trying to convince him that he had failed the test -- a common strategy.
At one point, the examiner urged him to confess to shooting the Robertsons, telling him that this would probably keep him from getting the death penalty. Mark replied that "everybody has to die sometime" and that he wouldn't confess to a crime he hadn't committed just to avoid a death sentence. Taken out of context, this single statement -- "everybody has to die sometime" -- was introduced by the prosecution in both of Mark's trials, without giving the jury any background on the circumstances in which it was made.
Mark Woodworth came to trial in March 1995, more than four years after the murder of Catherine Robertson. When Lyndel Robertson took the stand, he testified that a few days before the shooting, he and his wife had a dispute with Mark and Claude Woodworth over the profits from a soybean crop that Mark had planted on land held jointly by the two families. Lyndel claimed that Mark had used seed, fertilizer, and other inputs belonging to the joint operation and had refused to reimburse the Robertsons after selling the bean crop and collecting his profits. He also testified that he had complained about this to Mark and his father, and that his wife, Catherine, had also been upset about the arrangement.
This was the first time that Mark Woodworth or his attorney had heard any reason given why he might have held a grudge against the Robertsons. In fact, Lyndel Robertson and Claude Woodworth had originally agreed that the profits from the sale of Mark's soybean crop would be treated as his compensation for labor he contributed to other areas of the partnership. Shortly after Lyndel got out of the hospital, Mark had even offered to donate the proceeds from the crop to the Robertson family out of sympathy for their situation. This was the same sum of money that the prosecution later portrayed as the motive for the attack.
The most crucial defense witness in Mark's initial trial was Chris Ruoff, who testified to having seen a car parked in front of the Robertsons' house around the time of the murder. Both Terry Deister, the private investigator hired by Lyndel Robertson, and Gary Calvert, the sheriff's deputy in charge of the case, were determined to eliminate the "problem" caused by Ruoff's eyewitness evidence -- and it seems possible that both men committed perjury to try to discredit Ruoff.
In a sworn deposition taken by Mark's attorneys before his first trial, Deister said he had suggested to Calvert in 1991 that either Mark or his father might have been responsible for the attack on the Robertsons, pointing out that the two families were involved in litigation over their business partnership. His statement ignored the fact that the conflict arose months after the shooting.
Since Claude Woodworth had already passed a polygraph test regarding the shooting, Deister suggested to Calvert that Mark might have been the assailant. At this point, according to Deister's deposition, Calvert pointed out that Ruoff had seen a car in front of the Robertsons' house and had been able to identify it specifically as a dark-colored Bronco or Blazer. To test Ruoff's statement, the two men claimed they drove past the Robertsons' house on a moonless night and were unable to see anything more than the faint outline of a vehicle.
The claims in Deister's deposition are almost certainly untrue. On the day after Catherine Robertson's murder, friends and neighbors of the Robertson family installed a high-powered security lamp at the house, which comes on automatically after dark -- leaving the area well-lit at night. For this reason, it would have been impossible for Deister and Calvert to drive past the house in complete darkness.
Calvert himself made similarly unconvincing claims at Mark's first trial.
He testified that he questioned Chris Ruoff again after driving past the Robertsons' house, and that Ruoff admitted to being uncertain about having seen a car in front of the residence. Ruoff himself also testified at the trial, however, and firmly denied having changed his story.
Ballistic evidence was also critical to Mark's first trial. Bullets and bullet fragments removed from Lyndel Robertson and from the body of Catherine Robertson were compared with bullets test-fired from Claude Woodworth's Ruger pistol by three independent agencies -- the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department, and Huntington Laboratories, a private facility in the United Kingdom. Expert witnesses from all three labs testified for the prosecution, but while they agreed that there were certain "individualizing characteristics" linking the bullet fragments to Claude Woodworth's pistol, none of them provided positive identification. A ballistics expert testifying for the defense concluded that "hundreds of thousands" of weapons with the same lands and grooves as the Woodworth Ruger could have produced bullet fragments with the same characteristics.
Despite this unbelievably shaky case, Mark Woodworth was convicted in May 1995 and sentenced to 31 years in prison. It took nearly two years for his appeals to reach the Missouri Court of Appeals (Western District), which granted him a second trial based largely on the trial court's exclusion of nearly all the witnesses who had heard Lyndel Robertson accuse Brandon Thomure of shooting him. The court's ruling stated, in part:
"We remand for a new trial … because of error by the trial court in excluding evidence that another person had motive and opportunity to commit the crime. This evidence was admissible as substantive evidence because there was direct evidence linking that individual to the crime in that Mr. Robertson stated prior to trial that this was the one who had shot him … There is evidence that while in the hospital Mr. Robertson told a number of people, including his friends John Quinn, Tom Woodworth, Claude Woodworth, Marvin Meusick, Joe Neal Williams and John Williams, as well as his physician Dr. Fraser, police officer Jim Lightner and others, that a former boyfriend of his daughter named Brandon Thomure was his assailant or that he had seen Brandon assault him. It is alleged that Mr. Thomure had physically abused the Robertsons' daughter Rochelle, that Rochelle had been impregnated by Mr. Thomure, that Rochelle had terminated that pregnancy, and that not long before the shooting Mr. and Mrs. Robertson had offered to buy Rochelle a new car if she would break up with Mr. Thomure … We agree that the State failed to offer credible evidence of motive. While Mr. Robertson testified that he and the Woodworths had a dispute about reimbursing Mark for some expenses, there is no indication that he or his wife ever expressed or otherwise communicated their displeasure to any of the Woodworths prior to the shooting."
Mark Woodworth's new trial, on the same five counts as his original trial, took place in November 1999, more than nine years after the shooting. The second trial lasted just five days and was conducted before Stephen K. Griffin, the same judge who heard the original trial. Jurors were selected from the same pool of registered voters in Clinton County, Missouri, which has a total population of less than 18,000.
At the second trial, Chris Ruoff continued to maintain that he had seen a car parked in front of the Robertson house on the night of the murder, and that he had never changed his statement under questioning by then-Deputy Gary Calvert. Mark Woodworth's new defense attorney also demonstrated to the jury that it would have been impossible to open the box of .22-caliber shells in the Robertsons' shed without leaving more than one fingerprint. Only a single thumbprint of Mark's was found, suggesting that he might simply have touched the box while handling other equipment in the shed.
Even more significantly, Brandon Thomure's mother, who had originally provided him with an alibi for the shooting, changed her story on the witness stand. While she had earlier told police that she looked in on a sleeping Brandon in their Independence home around 10:40 p.m., just over an hour before the shooting in Chillicothe, she testified in court that it was in fact Brandon's 11-year-old sister who had seen him that night. Brandon's sister took the stand and backed up her mother's story. However, another witness, a high-school student in Chillicothe, testified that she had seen Brandon at a gas station in town on the same evening, and produced a canceled check showing that she had been at the station that night.
Despite the time lapsed since the shooting and the volume of crucial new evidence produced by Mark's defense, the new jury returned an identical guilty verdict on all five counts, but imposed an even heavier sentence of four life terms -- one for each count of murder, attempted murder, and armed criminal action, plus 15 years for burglary.
Mark's appeals continue, with strong support from the community in and around Chillicothe, but progress has been very slow. In late July 2000, his new lawyer, Susan Hunt, finally received transcripts of the second trial, more than seven months after it ended.
Nearly a decade after Catherine Robertson's murder, the case has yet to be resolved -- and Mark's family and friends can only hope it ends with yet another reversal and new trial.
© Justice Denied