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Cathy Woods

Other Nevada Exonerations
On February 24, 1976, 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell, a student at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada, called her mother and asked for a ride because her car had broken down. Her mother arrived minutes later, but could not find her. Mitchell’s body was found two hours later in a garage across the street from the University. Her hands were tied behind her back and her throat had been slit.

Although witnesses said they saw a man fleeing from the area at about that time, the murder went unsolved for three years. There was little evidence—no weapon was found and her car keys were missing. A cigarette butt near the body was preserved.

In February 1979, police in Shreveport, Louisiana contacted Reno police to report that a woman named Anita Carter, but who went by the name of Cathy Woods was a residential patient at a mental hospital, told a staff member that she had killed a girl named Michelle in Reno.

Although Woods had a lengthy history of mental illness (first hospitalized at age 11) and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, police went to interview her. Detectives said she gave them information—though it was nothing that had not been reported by the media. She was unable to tell them where any of the missing evidence was and a search of her mother’s home turned up nothing connecting Woods to the crime.

Although Woods made various statements that were obviously false (she said that she worked for the FBI and her mother was poisoning her), police decided that she had killed Mitchell.

Woods went to trial in Washoe County District Court in 1980. The prosecution relied almost solely on the confession and on records showing Woods was working in Reno at the time of the crime. The detective who interviewed Woods said Woods admitted that she was a lesbian and had offered to help Mitchell with her car. The detective said Woods told him that she lured Mitchell to the garage under the pretext that she had some tools to fix the car. In the garage, Woods made a sexual advance and when Mitchell rebuffed her, Woods slit her throat, the detective testified.

The defense sought to introduce the testimony of a woman named Kathy Murnighan, who was prepared to tell the jury that while she was in jail, another inmate named Raye Wood told her that her boyfriend, Tony Lima, had killed Mitchell.

Outside the presence of the jury, Lima was called as a witness and denied killing Mitchell. Raye Wood invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused to testify unless she was granted immunity. The prosecution refused to grant her immunity. The defense then sought to introduce Murnighan’s testimony, but the judge barred it because he did not consider her testimony trustworthy.

On December 11, 1980, Woods was convicted of first-degree murder with a weapon. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In March 1985, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed her conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that Murnighan should have been allowed to testify.

Woods was retried later that year and was convicted again in November 1985. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole a second time.

In 2013, Woods, who has difficulty reading and writing, got the help of another inmate to send a letter to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project requesting DNA testing in the case. An attorney in Reno was appointed to file a petition for Woods requesting DNA testing. In the fall of 2013, the DNA tests failed to link Woods to any evidence and identified a male profile on the cigarette butt found next to Mitchell’s body.

The male DNA profile was sent to the FBI’s national DNA database, but no matches were found until July 2014 when authorities in Reno were notified that a recently uploaded DNA profile—belonging to Rodney Halbower—was matched to the DNA profile from the cigarette butt.

Prior to Mitchell's murder, Halbower had been arrested for the rape of a Reno blackjack dealer in November 1975. He was free on bond awaiting trial in February 1976 when Mitchell was murdered. He was subsequently convicted of the 1975 Reno rape and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

In 1986, Halbower escaped from prison in Nevada and managed to get to Oregon where he attacked and stabbed a woman in a parking lot. He was convicted of that crime, but was returned to Nevada to resume serving his sentence for the 1975 attempted murder conviction. When he was granted parole in that case, Halbower was turned over to Oregon authorities in the summer of 2014 to begin serving his life sentence there for the 1986 attack. When he was moved to Oregon, he was required to give up a sample of his DNA, which was sent to the FBI database.

In September 2014, Woods’ conviction was vacated and she was granted a new trial after the FBI disclosed that Halbower’s DNA had been matched to the murders of three other young women in California who were killed at about the same time as Mitchell was murdered. Evidence showed that the murders occcurred while Halbower was free on bond while awaiting trial for the Reno rape. At the time, the unknown murderer was called the "Gypsy Hill killer" because of the area where the killings occurred.

Woods was released on bond on September 11, 2014. The prosecution dismissed the charges against her on March 6, 2015.

In August 2016, lawyers for Woods filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Reno, two former Reno officers, former Washoe County District Attorney Cal Dunlap, two former Shreveport officers and a doctor who treated Woods at the Louisiana State University Medical Center. In August 2019, Washoe County settled its portion of the lawsuit for $3 million. Also in August 2019, Woods filed for $3.5 million in compensation from the state of Nevada under a new law that would pay her $100,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. Separately, the city of Reno settled its portion of the lawsuit in August 2020, agreeing to pay Woods $3 million. In October 2020, the state of Nevada agreed to pay Woods $2.85 million. Woods died on July 15, 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/9/2015
Last Updated: 8/12/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1976
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes