Shortly before midnight on November 13, 1990, a gunman entered the home of 44-year-old Lyndel Robertson. He and his 41-year-old wife Catherine were shot while in bed at their home outside of Chillicothe, Missouri. Lyndel was shot multiple times and survived. Catherine was shot twice and died.
When the paramedics arrived, they found Catherine dead in bed. Lyndel was on the floor. He spit out a bullet fragment and another bullet fragment was found in the bed. At the hospital, a third fragment was removed from Lyndel’s tongue. One of the bullets was lodged near his liver.
There were no signs of forced entry, the house had not been ransacked, and money was lying out in the open in the living room.
Two or three hours after the shooting, authorities went to the nearby house of Claude Woodworth. The Woodworth family, including Claude’s 16-year-old son, Mark, was in a farming partnership with the Robertsons. Claude Woodworth told investigators that Lyndel kept a .22 caliber Ruger pistol in his pickup truck, and that it was identical to one he owned. Claude Woodworth retrieved his own gun from his bedroom. The gun was examined and returned.
Mark Woodworth said he knew where his father kept his pistol and that he sometimes used it for target practice. Mark said everyone involved in the farming operation knew that Lyndel kept a gun in his truck. He also said that he and others occasionally used Lyndel’s gun for target practice and had used it as recently as a few weeks before the crime. Lyndel kept bullets for the gun in a box in his truck and had other boxes of shells in a machine shed where he parked his truck.
In the shed, investigators found three boxes of .22 caliber shells on top of the workbench. Several bullets were missing from a box of high velocity .22 caliber long rifle bullets. Investigators dusted the box for fingerprints and found a clear thumbprint on it.
While at the hospital, Lyndel told several of his friends and police that he had been attacked by a former boyfriend of his daughter named Brandon Thomure.
Lyndell and Catherine did not like Thomure because he had been accused of physically abusing their daughter, Rochelle. In addition, Thomure had gotten her pregnant after which she had an abortion. Not long before the shooting, Lyndel and Catherine offered to buy Rochelle a new car if she would break up with Thomure. A witness told police that there was a strange car in the Robertson’s driveway on the night of the shooting. The day after the shooting, the police examined Thomure and found evidence of gunpowder residue on his hands. When Thomure said he had been more than two hours away on the night of the shooting, he was dropped as a suspect.
Three days after the shooting, police went to the Woodworth home and retrieved Claude Woodworth’s .22 caliber Ruger pistol. Ballistics tests on the Woodworth and the Robertson pistols revealed that while the barrels of both guns left markings on bullets that were consistent with the recovered bullet fragments, there was no conclusive evidence that either weapon fired the shots on the night of the crime.
When 20 months had passed and no one had been arrested, Lyndel hired a private investigator named Terry Deister, who joined up with Gary Calvert, chief deputy and investigator for the Livingston County Sheriff's Department, to re-investigate the case. On July 4, 1992, Deister and Calvert went to the Woodworth home while Mark’s parents were out of town. At their request, Mark Woodworth went to the Sheriff's office where he was questioned for more than four hours. They took his fingerprints and soon discovered that the print found on the box of .22 caliber shells in the machine shed matched Woodworth’s thumbprint.
On July 14, 1992, Calvert returned to the Woodworth home with a search warrant and seized Claude Woodworth’s pistol. The following month, the bullet lodged near Lyndel’s liver was removed. Ballistics experts tested this bullet against bullets test-fired from Claude’s pistol. The experts discovered that Claude’s pistol had a manufacturing defect that left a distinct mark on fired bullets. Some of the bullets and fragments recovered had similar marks and one expert estimated as many as 150 to 1,000 barrels could have been manufactured with that particular defect. An examination of the bullets recovered from the victims showed they had the same coating and similar marks as the bullets in the machine shed.
Nine months later, on April 11, 1993, Calvert and Deister again brought Mark Woodworth in for questioning. After another four hour interrogation, Woodworth was allowed to leave. During both interviews, he denied any knowledge of the shootings. At first he said he had been in the machine shed in the past and never touched any of the .22 caliber shells there. He subsequently modified his statement, saying it was possible he picked up a box of shells when he was in the shed helping Lyndel and was unaware that he had done so.
Armed with Deister’s reports, Lyndel pressured the Livingston County prosecutor to charge Woodworth with the crime. When the prosecutor failed to take action within two months, Lyndel asked Livingston County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lewis to convene a grand jury. Lewis did just that and appointed the Missouri Attorney General’s Office to take over the prosecution.
On October 29, 1993, Woodworth was charged with the second-degree murder of Catherine, the first-degree assault of Lyndel, burglary and armed criminal action.
He was tried as an adult in March of 1995. The prosecution presented the evidence of the thumbprint on the box of bullets, the bullet fragment evidence and testimony by Calvert that Woodworth gave conflicting statements about how many times he had been in the shed and how often he went target shooting with his father’s pistol.
The prosecution presented evidence that sometime prior to the shooting, Claude Woodworth had spoken to Lyndel about Mark planting soybeans after the wheat was harvested so that Mark could sell the crop. After paying for seeds, fertilizer and other costs, the profit would be his compensation for that year. A few days prior to the shooting, Mark harvested about 100 acres of soy beans worth about $6,000. The prosecution contended that Lyndel and his wife disputed the expenses to be reimbursed—although there was no evidence that their dissatisfaction ever was communicated to the Woodworth family.
Woodworth testified in his own behalf and denied the crime. He said that he and others on the farm had used Lyndel’s gun for target shooting and the box of shells with his thumbprint may have been in Lyndel’s truck at one point. Another witness, Neal Williams, also testified that he, Woodworth, and others used Lyndel’s gun and ammunition for target shooting. Williams testified that this ammunition was sometimes moved from the truck to the shed or from the shed to the truck.
Woodworth’s defense attorney attempted to present evidence concerning Brandon Thomure’s relationship with Rochelle Robertson and his possible motive for injuring the Robertsons, but the prosecution objected and that evidence was almost entirely excluded. The judge ruled that evidence showing that someone else had a motive and opportunity to commit the crime can be admitted only if there is some direct evidence connecting the other suspect to the crime. The judge held that the gunpowder residue found on Thomure was not sufficient. The judge also ruled that Lyndel’s statements at the hospital identifying Thomure as his assailant were not direct evidence since Lyndel had denied making such statements.
In March 1995, the jury convicted Woodworth of all the charges. He was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
Two years later, in 1997, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the convictions. The court held that the trial judge should have allowed the evidence relating to Thomure’s motive and opportunity, as well as evidence that Lyndel had identified Thomure while in the hospital.
Woodworth went on trial a second time and was convicted of all charges again in November 1999. This time he was sentenced to life in prison plus a consecutive sentence of 15 years.
Seven years later, an Associated Press reporter discovered three letters involving the prosecutor in the case, Robert Hulshof, Judge Lewis and Lyndel. In one of the letters, Lyndel declared that at one point he had been adamant that Thomure be charged with the crime. In another letter, Lyndel said that justice would not be served until evidence against Mark was brought to a grand jury.
Further investigation by the defense uncovered police reports showing that not long after the shooting, Rochelle had reported that Thomure had violated an order of protection that barred him from contacting her.
Woodworth’s lawyers filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in July 2010. A special master was appointed to conduct a hearing and in May 2012, the special master found that the prosecution had failed to disclose the letters and police reports to the defense and that Woodworth was entitled to a new trial. By then the defense also had located witnesses who said they had told police immediately after the shooting that Thomure was in Chillicothe early in the morning after the shooting—which contradicted Thomure’s initial claim that he was hours away.
In January 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the finding of the special master, vacated Woodworth’s convictions and ordered a new trial. In February 2013, Woodworth was released on bond. On July 15, 2014, after a special prosecutor was appointed to review the case, the charges were dismissed.
In August 2014, Woodworth filed a federal lawsuit against the prosecutor, sheriff's office, Robertson, and 10 others seeking compensation for his wrongful incarceration.
– Maurice Possley