Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull has ordered the Missouri State Attorney General’s office off Mark Woodworth’s case in a forceful order handed down last week. Judge Hull wrote Wednesday, “Given the history of this case, at this point in time, there is absolutely no reason the office of Attorney General should prosecute this case. Therefore, it should be removed from that obligation.”
Woodworth is set to face a third trial in July after his previous murder convictions were both thrown out by Missouri courts. In January of last year the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously voted to overturn Woodworth’s conviction for a second time after it was discovered that prosecutor Kenny Hulshof had suppressed exculpatory evidence in the case. [For an in-depth look at the history of the Woodworth case, read this January 2014 feature article by The Pitch.]
Though Hulshof is long gone from the Missouri AG’s office, the current Attorney General, Chris Koster, signald his intention to take Woodworth to trial for a third time until Judge Hull intervened last week. “Justice, fairness and the requirements of due process of law require an independent review of this case by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation in this case,” Judge Hull wrote in the order, which granted a defense motion for the disqualification of the AG’s office from the case.
The Woodworth prosecution, previously called “a manifold injustice” by another judge asked to review the case by the Missouri Supreme Court, is now 17 years old. In a terrific editorial by Barbara Shelly at the Kansas City Star, Shelly helpfully summarizes the layers of misconduct permeating the case:
The Livingston County sheriff’s office turned over the murder investigation to a private investigator hired by the victim’s family. He was given access to investigative files and physical evidence and allowed to create a narrative that pinned the crime on Woodworth and excluded other possibilities. In addition, prosecutors in both trials withheld evidence that could have been helpful to the defense.
The state attorney general’s office, headed by now-Gov. Jay Nixon, got involved when the Livingston County prosecutor, who had been reluctant to charge Woodworth, took himself off the case. One of Nixon’s assistants, Kenny Hulshof, took over.
Working with dubious physical evidence, Hulshof won a conviction. Four years later, with another assistant attorney general arguing for the state, Woodworth was convicted again. But more withheld evidence later surfaced, and in 2010 the state Supreme Court asked Boone County Judge Gary Oxenhandler to review the case.
Oxenhandler said he was convinced that had the investigation and prosecutions been handled properly, “no jury would have convicted Woodworth of the crimes charged.” The Supreme Court set aside Woodworth’s conviction.
Shelly goes on to criticize Jay Nixon, Kenny Hulshof and Chris Koster, the prosecutors at the Missouri AG’s office who have overseen the case over the years, as using Mark Woodworth for political purposes. She notes the lack of professional consequences for their more troubling actions:
As is usually the case, those who mismanage criminal justice meet with few consequences. Nixon spent 16 years as attorney general and moved up to governor. Hulshof served 12 years in the U.S. Congress. Courts have raised serious questions about his handling of several cases during Hulshof’s time as Nixon’s assistant in the attorney general’s office.
Now Koster, another attorney general with big political ambitions, has held a third trial over the head of a man who already has been subjected to two unjust prosecutions and years of lost freedom.
Koster’s office said it would not appeal Judge Hull’s ruling. Judge Hull appointed Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren to take over the case in preparation for trial later this year.