The long sentence
After 35 years behind bars, Cathy Woods awaits another day in court
Justice is supposed to be blind. Often, though, it appears mostly to be slow.
After spending 35 years behind bars for a murder of which she was later exonerated, Cathy Woods filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Reno, Washoe County, and the individual law enforcement officers and prosecutor whose work put her behind bars. That was nearly four years ago, and—while Washoe County has settled with Woods on behalf of itself and the prosecutor—the case against the other defendants has yet to go to trial.
It is, in fact, still in its first stage—discovery—which is set to finish on Feb. 1. To understand what happened to Woods and how it led to her case against the people and government entities that put her in prison, one must go back nearly 44 years to Feb. 24, 1976.
The murder of Michelle Mitchell
Michelle Mitchell, a 19-year-old nursing student at the University of Nevada, Reno, was murdered on the evening of Feb. 24, 1976.
It’s a story that late RN&R News Editor Dennis Myers followed closely, first as a student journalist for the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sagebrush newspaper and later as a professional.
According to Myers’ past reporting, Mitchell was driving past the campus on Ninth Street. She was taking a container of orange juice to her diabetic father at the Sterling Village Bowling Lanes at Valley Road and Denslowe Drive—but her car broke down as she was passing the agriculture college. Mitchell either pushed or coasted her Volkswagen into a parking lot and called her mother from a phone booth at the college for a ride. But when Barbara Mitchell arrived at the university, her daughter was nowhere to be found.
Soon Barbara, the police and Michelle’s father, Edwin, who brought along a Labrador to help, began searching for Michelle. Several times they passed by a garage. However, it was not until the residents of the property, an elderly couple, came home late that evening and opened their garage that Michelle’s body was found—her hands bound behind her back and her throat slit.
A cigarette butt was collected from the scene, and shoe prints in the dirt floor of the garage—about a men’s size 9 or 9.5—were documented in addition to Mitchell’s.
Barbara Mitchell told the Sagebrush that Michelle had a fear of things like spiders and sheds. “How could she have been taken into that old garage without a fight?” she asked.
In the weeks following the murder, police received information and tips from witnesses in the area.
Two of these witnesses told police that Mitchell was startled by a man who put his arms around her as she was walking back to her car. Others reported that they’d seen a man running away from the scene of the crime near the time it was believed to have occurred. Fraternity brothers at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat house on Evans Avenue told the police they’d seen a man walking away from the neighborhood in a hurry. And another witness who’d driven through the area told them she’d almost hit a man who ran in front of her car near the scene. She also told the police that the man appeared to have blood on him and had held one of his hands at his side, potentially under this jacket, as he ran.
The police, it seemed, were looking for a male killer. They’d continue, without success, until the case went cold.
The prosecution of Cathy Woods
Cathy Woods was living in Reno when Mitchell was murdered but wouldn’t be for much longer. Woods had moved to Reno in 1969. At the time of Mitchell’s murder, she was a manager at a topless bar in downtown Reno—this despite the fact that she was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with only a sixth grade education. According to court documents, the condition had set in early. The first time Woods was hospitalized for mental health reasons was when she was only 12 years old.
Woods left Reno around a year after Mitchell was murdered. She moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, to be closer to her family. But once there, her mental illness became worse. Woods was involuntarily committed to the Central Louisiana State Hospital in October, 1978, and stayed there through December. Just months later, in February, 1979, she was involuntarily committed once again—this time to the Louisiana State University Medical Center. It had been three years since Mitchell’s murder.
In March of ’79, Woods became a suspect in Mitchell’s murder when she told Carol Sherman, a counselor at LSU, about the three-year-old cold case, suggesting that she’d killed Mitchell.
Court records submitted by Woods’ attorneys indicate that she also made claims around that time of being an FBI agent and that she believed her mother, whom she’d moved to Louisiana to be near, was poisoning her. Nonetheless, Sherman decided to contact the Shreveport police—who, in turn, contacted the Reno Police Department.
After interviewing Sherman, Shreveport police detective Donald Ashley and his partner, detective Clarence Lewis, contacted the RPD, which sent then lieutenant Lawrence Dennison to Louisiana to follow up on this ostensible new lead in the cold case.
Woods was interrogated at the LSU Hospital by Ashley and Dennison on March 7, 1979. On March 8, two additional men from Nevada—then Washoe County district attorney Calvin Dunlap and RPD detective John Kimpton—arrived in Shreveport to interrogate Woods again and to obtain a warrant to search her mother’s home for a murder weapon.
The search turned up nothing, and Woods’ interrogations over the course of the two days were not recorded. Nor did she sign or initial the confession written up by the officers. Yet this was the primary piece of evidence that was used to convict Woods of first-degree murder in 1980. The confession used in her trial stated that Woods had offered to help Mitchell fix her car, had taken her into the garage where her body was found on the pretext of getting some tools, had made a sexual proposal to her, and when rebuffed, had slit her throat. Woods was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This was the first time Woods was convicted of Mitchell’s murder. Her case was actually retried in 1985 after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned her conviction based on testimony that was not allowed by the court at her first trial—testimony that was entwined in a separate, lesser publicized, murder that happened only days before Mitchell’s.
The murder of Peggy Davis
A woman named Peggy Davis was murdered sometime between Feb. 19 or 20, 1976. Police found her body in her apartment on Ralston Street after receiving a call asking them to check the property. Davis and one of the two women convicted of killing her—Raye Wood—had at one time both worked as topless dancers at the Lucky Lady Club, 120 E. Second St., a club owned by Davis’ former lover Morey Kaplan. Wood and her accomplice in the killing—a woman named Marjorie Carter—were convicted of first-degree and second-degree murder, respectively. Investigations and court proceedings revealed the pair had bludgeoned and stabbed Davis to death as a part of a contract killing sponsored by Kaplan, who was the beneficiary of Davis’ life insurance policy.
Raye Wood’s boyfriend, Tony Lima, was charged and convicted as an accessory to the murder, having helped Raye Wood dispose of the murder weapons.
But according to the Nevada Supreme Court’s opinion issued when Woods’ re-trial for Mitchell’s murder was ordered, there may have been evidence linking Lima to Mitchell’s murder, too.
According to the court, the theory of Woods’ defense attorney at her first trial was that her “confession was the product of her mental illness” and Mitchell had actually been killed by Lima. And there was someone ready to testify to having information to corroborate the theory.
According to the court’s decision ordering the 1985 retrial, “Raye Wood’s former jailmate, Kathy Murnighan, was ready to testify that Raye Wood had told her that she and Lima had discussed killing a woman to cover up the Davis killing by making it appear as though both murders were the work of a homicidal maniac. One night, Lima told Raye Wood that he had found a girl whose car had broken down and had slashed her throat. Raye Wood and Lima together disposed of the murder weapon.”
Lima was, in fact, called during the offer of proof at Woods’ first trial and denied having killed Mitchell. Raye Wood invoked her fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused to testify unless she was granted immunity. She was ruled unavailable by the state, which denied her immunity.
At this point, Woods’ defense counsel sought to introduce Murnighan’s testimony, but the court denied it—claiming it was not sufficiently trustworthy.
Had that testimony been heard by jurors in Cathy Woods’ initial case, they would have learned the following, according to the Nevada Supreme Court document:
“A maroon Monte Carlo was seen near the scene of the crime on the night of the murder. Lima traded in his car, a maroon Monte Carlo, soon after Mitchell was killed. A footprint in the garage matched Lima’s shoe size. Murnighan said that Lima lost something in the garage; a blue cigarette lighter was found on the scene. Most strikingly, Murnighan stated that Lima had said that Mitchell was having her menstrual period when he killed her. Lima was trying to excuse himself for not having stabbed Mitchell in the vagina as Davis had been stabbed, because Raye Wood berated him for not having killed Mitchell the same way that Davis had been killed. Mitchell’s autopsy had disclosed that she had been having her menstrual period prior to her death. This fact was not mentioned in any of the numerous news accounts of the crime, and the State has been unable to proffer an alternative explanation of how Murnighan could have learned of it.”
However, even with this information on the table—and no physical evidence to link Woods to the scene—she was re-convicted of Mitchell’s murder in 1985 and again sentenced to life without parole.
She would spend another 30 years behind bars.
In 2013, one of Woods’ fellow inmates helped her send a letter to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project requesting DNA testing on the cigarette butt that had been found at the scene of Mitchell’s murder. And, in the fall of 2013, the DNA tests failed to link Woods to the murder—instead identifying a male DNA profile. This was sent to the FBI’s national DNA database, but no matches were found until July 2014 when Reno authorities were notified that an uploaded DNA profile—belonging to a man named Rodney Halbower—was matched to the DNA found on the cigarette butt.
Halbower had been arrested for raping a Reno blackjack dealer in November 1975. He was out on bail but appeared in court in Reno on his pending case on Feb. 23, 1976—the day before Mitchell’s murder.
Halbower was convicted of the 1975 rape but—in 1986—escaped prison in Nevada and made his way to Oregon, where he attacked and stabbed a woman in a parking lot. He was returned to Nevada to serve the rest of his sentence before being paroled and sent back to Oregon to begin serving his life sentence there for the attack he committed as an escapee. When he was moved to Oregon, he was required to give the sample of his DNA that authorities would later say links him to Mitchell’s murder—a finding the FBI disclosed in September of 2014. Halbower’s DNA not only matched that found at the scene of Mitchell’s murder but also several others that had occurred in California around the same time.
As a result, Woods was released from prison on bond on Sept. 11, 2014. The prosecution dismissed the charges against her on March 6, 2015. A year and a few months later, she filed her federal civil rights lawsuit alleging violations of her Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights against those who’d put her in jail. The nearly four-year-old lawsuit may finally go to trial this year.
“We don’t have a trial date set yet,” said Elizabeth Wang, one of Woods’ attorneys, in a recent interview. “In the fall of last year … we settled with Washoe County and the former prosecutor, Calvin Dunlap. And we are continuing to proceed against the City of Reno and the former Reno police officer who was involved in her interrogation, Lawrence Dennison, and two former Shreveport police officer, Donald Ashley and Clarence Lewis.”
Woods’ suit alleges that the police officers, whose legal representatives declined or did not respond to interview requests for this article, fabricated her confession. And her attorneys feel confident they’ll be able to prove it to a jury.
“I think what’s important to know is that whatever the record was back in the ’80s and at her first and her second trials, it’s not the record today,” said Wang. “What the record shows is that her confession was completely fabricated. And the detective [Dennison] claimed in his deposition that he didn’t even remember any of it. He claimed not to remember going to Shreveport. I mean, I’m sure he’s only gone to Shreveport once in his entire life to interrogate a severely mentally ill person in a psychiatric unit, but he claimed … not to remember any of it. He claimed not to remember going to Shreveport. He claimed not remember anything about her interrogation. So we’ll see what a jury thinks about that testimony.”
With a Feb. 1 deadline for the discovery phase and the opportunity for the defense to file for rejudgements on certain pieces of evidence, it will likely be at least autumn before a jury has the opportunity to deliberate on the facts of the case.
In the meantime, Woods’ legal team will remain busy. They’re preparing to represent her in a second lawsuit, this one against the State of Nevada, in which Woods will be the first person to sue under a new state law that would allow people released from wrongful imprisonment to receive a certificate of innocence, have their conviction records sealed and receive monetary compensation.
Those who spent more than 20 years in prison could receive $100,000 per year every year they spent behind bars. For Woods, that could mean up to $3.5 million dollars.
Woods’ attorneys filed her complaint against the state in December. According to Wang, the state’s response is expected sometime in late January. But, depending on the state’s appetite to settle the matter or allow it to proceed to trial, it could be quite some time before the longest wrongfully imprisoned woman in this nation’s history sees the conclusion of her quest for justice and compensation.