Cops and prosecutors said Cathy Woods was a lesbian and that it had driven her to murder.
Woods killed college student Michelle Mitchell in Reno, Nevada, in 1976 after the 19-year-old rebuffed her sexual advances, prosecutors claimed. Despite the lack of physical evidence, witness statements saying the victim was with a man, and Woods’s diagnosed schizophrenia, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Woods spent the next 35 years in prison before a DNA test in 2014 placing a suspected serial killer at the scene of the crime set her free.
The case against her was cooked, Woods’s lawyers claim in a federal lawsuit filed against Reno law enforcement on Monday. Seeking damages for civil rights violations, malicious prosecution, and emotional distress, Woods’s lawyers say she was the victim of a homophobic prosecution and police force that preyed on her mental illness to force a confession for a crime she didn’t commit—all while Mitchell’s real killer walked free.
Woods was the “longest-serving wrongfully convicted woman to be exonerated in United States history,” her lawyers wrote in the lawsuit. The city of Reno, named in Woods’s lawsuit, said it was still reviewing the suit when contacted by The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“All I can say right now is we’ll defend the city,” Karl Hall, attorney for the city of Reno, said.
Mitchell, a nursing student at the University of Nevada’s Reno campus, was found dead in a garage in February 1976 with her hands bound and her throat slit. Witnesses said they had seen Mitchell with a man shortly before her disappearance, and large footprints, as though from a man’s shoe, were found near her body. Physical evidence in the case was scant save for a cigarette discovered nearby. With forensic DNA testing a decade away, police were stumped: The case went cold for three years.
Then, in 1979, in the Louisiana mental facility where she had been committed involuntarily for psychiatric treatment, Woods started talking about Mitchell’s killing. The details Woods gave were public knowledge, her lawyers say: Woods had lived in Reno at the time of Mitchell’s murder, and the story had been highly publicized.
Still, Woods’s counselor contacted Reno police, in what her lawyers say was a violation of physician-patient confidentiality.
“The hospital staff should have known she was hearing voices at the time,” Woods’s lawyer Elizabeth Wang told The Daily Beast. Woods was being treated for schizophrenia, thought disorder, and auditory hallucinations. “She was doing all kinds of things that indicated she was saying things that were not at all true.”
Woods did not match the profile Reno police had assembled of their suspect. Witnesses described seeing a strange man with Mitchell before her death and leaving the area of the crime, but he was large, nearly 6 feet tall. Woods was considerably shorter, with feet too small to match the shoe prints found near Mitchell’s body.
“Nevertheless, the Law Enforcement Defendants decided that the Defendants from Reno should travel to Shreveport, Louisiana to interrogate Ms. Woods,” her lawyers wrote. “At the time of the interrogations, the Law Enforcement Defendants were eager to solve a highly-publicized murder case that had become a cold case.”
Already detained in the hospital against her will, Woods was highly susceptible to giving a false confession, Woods’s lawyers say. Police investigators did not read her Miranda rights, ignored her plea for an attorney, did not allow her to leave the hospital room where she was held, and otherwise ignored her signs of mental illness and distress, the lawyers say.
Eventually, Woods confessed to murdering Mitchell. Or at least, police say she did.
There’s no record of Woods’s confession like a recording, her lawyers say. Nor did police ask her to write her confession, or sign a sworn affidavit. Instead, police memorialized a confession after Woods’s interrogation, feeding Woods non-public information about the crime in order to make her appear complicit, her lawyers say.
The state’s case rested on a story of scorned affections, accusing Woods of killing Mitchell after Mitchell rejected her. But the narrative was a fiction, the lawyers say.
“I’m not sure the origins of why they said she was a homosexual,” Wang said of Woods, who is heterosexual. “I think part of it had to do with the fact that many witnesses identified a male suspect running from the scene… Our belief is that they tried to reconcile the fact that Woods is a woman with the other evidence from witnesses, by saying, ‘Oh, well, she’s a lesbian. She’s butch. She dressed like a man.’
“They talked a lot at the trial about the way she dressed, the way she acted. A lot of it was stuff that would not be brought up at a trial today, but even by the standards of that time, it was really quite homophobic.”
By casting Woods as a lesbian, prosecutors hoped to malign her character, her lawyers say. At a time when homosexuality was broadly considered immoral, less than a decade after homosexuality was de-listed as a psychiatric illness, accusing a woman of murdering another over unrequited advances was no doubt helpful to the state’s case.
Woods lost her trial and her subsequent appeal, and spent the next 35 years in jail, where she attempted suicide, survived an assault, and was subjected to electroshock therapy.
All the while, Mitchell’s real killer went unaccused. In 2014, 38 years after Mitchell’s slaying, police tested the DNA on a cigarette found at the scene of the murder. The DNA matched that of Rodney Halbower, the suspected “Gypsy Hill Killer” or “San Mateo Slasher” accused of murdering up to seven women and girls in early 1976.
Since Mitchell’s murder, Halbower had been in and out of prison. In November 1975, just months before the murders of seven women and girls in California and Nevada, he had been jailed for rape. After the murders, for which he was not originally investigated, he was booked again on rape charges, this time escaping during a softball game and kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter in Michigan. Recaptured and returned to a Nevada prison, he escaped a second time in 1986 and fled to Oregon, where he stabbed a woman in a parking lot.
Halbower was convicted of attempted murder and was serving a life sentence when DNA tests linked him to Mitchell’s murder and those of two other women killed in early 1976. When the results of the DNA test were made public, Woods was released, and Halbower was extradited to California, where he has been charged with two 1976 murders.
The first thing Woods did after her September 2014 release from prison was to eat a cheeseburger and onion rings with her brother.
“She is delighted,” Woods’s criminal attorney Maizie Pusich said upon her release. “She is having probably the best day of her life because she knows that this is all over.”
Woods is free now, and living with family. But her lawyers say no settlement can win back the years she lost in prison.
“Ms. Woods will never get 35 years of her life back,” they wrote. “Nothing about being mentally vulnerable could ever justify being wrongfully convicted for over three decades.”