RENO — Law enforcement officials in Nevada and Louisiana responsible for sending a woman to prison for 35 years for a Reno murder she did not commit are doing everything they can now to keep her from getting the compensation she deserves, her lawyer says.
Cathy Woods, 67, was freed last year after new DNA evidence exonerated her in the 1976 killing of Michelle Mitchell and implicated an Oregon inmate now accused of multiple murders in the San Francisco Bay Area during the same period.
Woods’ attorney, Elizabeth Wang, filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf in Reno in August seeking unspecified damages from the city, the county, an ex-prosecutor and former police officers she accuses of coercing a false confession from Woods at a psychiatric hospital in Louisiana in 1979.
This week, a U.S. magistrate judge refused to order defense attorneys to make their clients available for depositions. Instead, Judge Valerie Cook granted defense motions Tuesday to put discovery on hold until a judge decides whether to dismiss the case, which may not happen “until next summer or possibly even next fall,” Wang said.
“It’s quite a long while from now, which is very unfortunate,” she told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “She wants to see her day in court.”
Woods is in poor health, suffers from lifelong mental illness and recently was hospitalized for unspecified physical ailments. She is living with her brother and sister-in-law in Gig Harbor, Washington.
“She’s out of the hospital now, but she is very, very sick,” Wang said. “The 35 years of medical and mental treatment she received in the Nevada Department of Corrections was not the best.”
Woods’ initial conviction in 1980 was overturned by the state Supreme Court, but she was convicted again in 1984 and the high court upheld the conviction in 1988 before a Washoe County district judge vacated it in September 2014. The district attorney withdrew the charges in March 2015.
She is now suing law enforcement officials, seeking unspecified damages.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Large acknowledged that Woods makes “emotional pleas” that “she has waited long enough for her chance to sue,” but said her legal arguments don’t hold up. Defense lawyers say judges have repeatedly found that the confession in question was legal, thereby undercutting the heart of Woods’ case.
Wang said legal maneuvering by law enforcement officials is simply a delay tactic and that time is running out.
“Given it involves events from 30 to 40 years ago, there is a serious concern witnesses will become unavailable due to illness or death,” she said.
Woods was working as a bartender in Reno when Mitchell was killed in 1976. She later moved to Louisiana and her mother committed her involuntarily in 1979 to the psychiatric hospital in Shreveport, where Woods told a counselor about “a girl named Michelle being murdered in Reno,” court records show.
Woods was extremely psychotic, suffering from chronic schizophrenia and never should have been interrogated, Wang said.
But she said law enforcement officials under heavy pressure to solve the case responded by coercing a confession from her, suggesting answers and feeding her information about the crime despite knowing that Woods had no connection to the murder.
Defense lawyers said Woods’ public defenders tried to get the confession thrown out every time she went before a judge.
But each time the courts ruled her rights were not violated, in part because she had not formally been taken into custody and therefore did not have to be warned she had a right to remain silent.