Justice Requires a New Trial for Mark Woodworth; Criminal Justice; Missouri Supreme Court Should Accept Judge's Findings That Murder Conviction Was a Mistake; OTHER VIEWS
Sean D O'Brien, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
That the American criminal justice system makes mistakes "is a truism, not a revelation," according to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The Missouri Supreme Court will soon determine whether Mark Woodworth's murder conviction is one of those mistakes.
The National Registry of Exonerations at Northwestern and Michigan law schools reports that since 1989, at least 951 men and women were sentenced to death or to prison, but released after new evidence proved them innocent. Three or four exonerated people walk out of American prisons every month. Last month saw the release of Alprentiss Nash in Illinois, Cory Credell in South Carolina and Michael Hash in Virginia. Each exoneree represents a criminal justice system failure: an innocent person languished in prison an average of 15 years while the real perpetrator remained free, often committing new crimes. In many cases, the evidence proving innocence also identified the actual perpetrator. No one is served when the justice system makes such a grave mistake, least of all crime victims.
As a board member of the Midwest Innocence Project, I have helped pro bono lawyers correct miscarriages of justice. In each successful exoneration, hindsight reveals patterns of behavior that caused the mistake. Typically, investigators narrow the circle of suspects prematurely, causing them to overlook or misinterpret evidence. This risk of error is compounded exponentially when investigators are biased; inevitably, evidence is concealed and juries are misled.
Woodworth, imprisoned for murder in the tragic shooting of Cathy and Lyndel Robertson, is a case in point. The Robertsons' daughter, Rhonda Robertson Oesch, recently wrote the Post-Dispatch suggesting that "justice is on the verge of collapse" if the Missouri Supreme Court follows Judge Gary Oxenhandler's recommendation to grant Woodworth a new trial. I respectfully disagree; Judge Oxenhandler's findings restore integrity and confidence in the justice system.
Judge Oxenhandler's impeccable reputation as an intelligent, fair and thorough judge is probably why the Missouri Supreme Court chose him to hear Woodworth's evidence. He found that the investigation was biased, important evidence was concealed and two juries were misled in order to convict Woodworth. Oxenhandler found that the crime likely was committed by another suspect, Brandon Thomure.
The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed Woodworth's first conviction because the trial judge prohibited the defense from presenting evidence implicating Thomure in the crime. …