A 64-year-old woman imprisoned for more than 30 years is slated to get a new trial for a murder she was convicted of in 1976. Lawyers in Reno, Nevada requested that Cathy Woods receive a new trial based on DNA evidence that may legally prove someone else was responsible for the crime. Washoe District Jude Patrick Flanagan has ruled in favor of the new trial, which is set to begin in July of 2015.
Woods was convicted of slashing the throat of 19-year-old college student Michelle Mitchell in 1976. The murder occurred in a residential garage near the University of Nevada, Reno. Woods was originally convicted in 1980 for the crime, a conviction she later appealed and lost. She was convicted a second time in 1985.
Woods was under psychiatric care in Louisiana in 1979 – the year when she first claimed to have killed the college student in Nevada. By some reports, she told a psychiatric staff nurse that she had “killed a woman named Michelle in Reno.” The nurse reported the story to authorities whose interview with Woods resulted in a confession to a crime they had been unable to solve and one which had kept the community on edge for years. Although Woods later changed her statement to one of innocence – she was convicted of the murder, twice.
In 1979, Woods was under psychiatric care for attempted suicide and had been hospitalized three times in the six months before the 1976 murder of Mitchell. Woods had also previously been diagnosed at the age of 13 with schizophrenia. Defense attorneys claimed that many of the details Woods reported about the murder could have been taken from news reports. Further, there were details that seemed to be mostly the ramblings of a delusional mind. Nevertheless, apparently on the strength of her initial confession and the fact that she had been in close proximity to the crime scene, Woods was convicted of the crime.
Attorneys now say that new DNA evidence has been examined that they believe indicates someone else was at the scene of Mitchell’s murder. Bundled in with the evidence from the trial, which included the rope Mitchell was tied with and some of her clothing, was a cigarette butt. DNA analysis of the cigarette revealed the DNA of a man who was linked to numerous murders in the San Francisco Bay Area known as the Gypsy Hill Murders. These crimes also involved sexual assault and the DNA from semen obtained from the victims matches the recently examined DNA on the cigarette butt. All of the Gypsy Hill victims resembled one another and Michelle Mitchell fit the same profile. An arrest was never made in the San Francisco case.
Although after more than 30 years of imprisonment Cathy Woods has been granted a new trial, the Nevada murder charges against her may still stand even though there was never any DNA evidence linking her to the crime. Authorities have long suspected that there may have been more than one person involved in the murder despite there only being two sets of footprints, one of which belonged to the victim and the other to a foot much larger than that of Woods. However, according to the Innocence Project, some 64 percent of murder convictions that are “overturned by DNA evidence” involve false confessions. It can be speculated that were the Woods murder trial held in current times, a confession from a psychiatric patient, a lack of DNA evidence linking the suspect to the crime and DNA evidence linking a known suspect to the crime would likely have resulted in the case being dismissed.
By Alana Marie Burke