1976 murder charge dropped against Nevada woman
(KTVN.COM) RENO, Nevada – The murder charge against Cathy Woods stemming from the 1976 murder of 19-year-old University of Nevada Nursing Student Michelle Mitchell was dismissed Friday by the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office after an extensive review of the case including the discovery of DNA evidence.
“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,” said Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks.
On Feb. 24, 1976, Mitchell disappeared after her VW Bug broke down near the University of Nevada, Reno. Her body was found hours later in a nearby residential garage. Mitchell’s hands were bound behind her back and her throat had multiple stab wounds. A Marlboro cigarette butt was found near her body along with several burnt paper matches.
Crime Scene Investigation revealed two sets of footprints leading to the garage. One set was identified as Mitchell’s. The set that did not belong to Mitchell also appeared to lead away from the garage. The same two sets of footprints were located on the dirt floor inside of the garage.
Mitchell’s murder investigation continued. In March of 1979 when Cathy Woods, a patient in the psychiatric ward of the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, told hospital staff she had murdered a 19-year-old girl named Michelle in a garage near the college in Reno three or four years ago.
After being contacted by the hospital staff, Reno authorities went to Shreveport and interviewed Woods. She again claimed responsibility for the murder.
Woods was convicted by jury of the murder in November of 1980. After the conviction was reversed by the Nevada Supreme Court, she was again convicted by jury of the murder in November of 1985. Both times, Woods was sentenced to serve life in prison.
”I do not fault the law enforcement involved in the original investigation, the prosecution or the two juries in any way. They were faced with a vicious and tragic unsolved murder and were presented with detailed, intentional confessions from a person who resided in the area at the time of the murder. They did not have the incredible tool of DNA.” Hicks said.
Woods filed a Post-Conviction Petition in 2010 requesting DNA examination of evidence. The Second Judicial District Court ordered the testing of physical evidence taken from the crime scene. The testing revealed no evidence of Cathy Woods’ DNA. However, the cigarette butt from the garage near Mitchell’s body contained an unknown male’s DNA profile. The unknown male DNA profile matched a DNA profile from two unsolved California murder cases that occurred in January and February of 1976.
In early July of 2014, there was a CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) match on the DNA profile from the unsolved California murder cases and matched Rodney Halbower’s DNA profile. Halbower’s DNA had recently been entered into the system when he was transferred from the Nevada Department of Corrections, after serving a sentence for an unrelated crime, to prison in Oregon. Halbower is now charged in the two unsolved murders from California.
In September of 2014, Woods’ conviction was vacated and a new trial was ordered. She was released on bail at that time.
“I have spent time with the family members of Ms. Mitchell. This process has undoubtedly been very difficult on their family and I offer them our deepest sympathies.
However, as I know they understand, justice dictates that we move to dismiss this murder charge against Woods.” Hicks said.
“Whenever we hear about these rare cases where convicted individuals are later exonerated by DNA, it is a circumstance that upsets our society, rightfully so. It is also depicted as a strike against our modern day criminal justice system. I would suggest otherwise. These exonerations, 30 and 40 years later, show how improved our criminal justice system has become. Our crime scene investigation has evolved, our investigation techniques have evolved, our interview techniques have evolved, and the evidence we are able to present to juries, such as DNA, has immensely evolved. So, as tragic and difficult as this case continues to be, the one shining light is that it shows our modern day system is working,” said Hicks.