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Longest-ever wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history sues
Officers concocted homophobic theory
2016-08-22

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From a press release

RENO, NV — Attorneys for Cathy Woods, who according to the National Registry of Exonerations' database is the longest-ever wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history, filed suit in federal court here today against four former Reno, NV and Shreveport, LA cops, a district attorney and a physician who knowingly caused her wrongful imprisonment.

The former police officers are accused of coercing false statements out of a mentally vulnerable person and falsely attributed statements to her for the 1976 murder of college student Michelle Mitchell. Despite multiple witness reports of a man fleeing the scene of the crime, the officers with no evidence concocted a homophobic theory that Ms. Woods is a lesbian, that her "mannish" appearance explained the witness reports, and that she murdered Ms. Mitchell for rejecting her sexual advances.

Ms. Woods, also known as Anita Carter, was exonerated after DNA testing conducted on evidence from the crime scene revealed that the actual killer was a serial rapist and murderer, a man named Rodney Halbower. Halbower is currently serving a prison sentence in Oregon.

Ms. Woods is represented by Elizabeth Wang and David B. Owens of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law and Edmund J. Gorman, Jr., Attorney at Law.

Loevy & Loevy is one of the largest civil rights law firms in the country and handles cases nationwide, with offices in Chicago and Boulder, Colorado. It has won more multi-million dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the entire country over the past decade.

Background

On the evening of February 24, 1976, Michelle Mitchell, a 19-year-old University of Nevada-Reno student, was murdered near the campus. With blanketing media coverage, there was immense public pressure to solve the murder and make the campus and its young charges safe. Ms. Woods was a Reno resident at the time and, like many other Reno residents, saw the many news reports.

In the days immediately after Ms. Mitchell's death, numerous witnesses who were near the campus on the night of the murder came forward to the police with information that they had seen a suspicious man near and running away from the scene of the crime at around the time that the crime was believed to have occurred. In fact, the police believed that Michelle's killer was probably a male serial killer, given similar killings of young women in the region.

One of the hottest "heater cases" on the Reno, NV police docket, it went unsolved for three years, without any arrests and no fresh leads, an embarrassment to the department.

In March 1979, after a lifelong history of severe mental illness and with only a sixth grade education, Ms. Woods had been involuntarily committed to receive psychiatric care in Shreveport, Louisiana. While she was floridly psychotic and hearing voices, Ms. Woods told a counselor at Louisiana State University ( LSU ) Medical Center a vague story about having killed a girl named Michelle in Reno several years earlier. The counselor contacted Shreveport police, who in turn contacted Reno police.

For the Reno police, this was their big break, their opportunity to solve the case and rehabilitate the department after their three-year long failure to solve the case.

Dr. Douglas Burks of LSU Medical Center violated his professional ethics by participating in the interrogation of Ms. Woods with Shreveport and Reno police when Ms. Woods clearly was not competent to answer questions, let alone truly consent to be interrogated and fully understand her rights. She had been involuntarily detained at the LSU Medical Center, was not free to leave, and was in an inherently coercive environment due to her severe mental illness.

In the days leading up to the interrogation, Ms. Woods had not responded to her psychiatric medication and her condition had gotten worse. It profoundly affected her ability to function properly as she experienced disorganized thoughts, an inability to think in a linear or logical fashion, and auditory hallucinations.

The suit notes:

— As a result of Ms. Woods' inability to communicate in a normal manner, as well as her below-average intelligence and limited education, it was immediately obvious to any person who questioned Ms. Woods … that she was suffering from cognitive difficulties and symptoms of mental illness, and that she had little to no education or understanding of the situation…. Rather than take steps to ensure that Ms. Woods was truly and freely agreeing to confess, these Defendants took advantage of her diminished capacity and mental vulnerabilities and continued their interrogations in a manner intended to force Ms. Woods to falsely confess….

— Ms. Woods' false confession during her interrogations was not memorialized or written down in any way. It was not audio recorded, even though the Defendants had the capacity to record statements. Nor did the Defendants ask Ms. Woods to write her confession down. Nor did they write her confession down for her and ask her to review or sign it.

To make her false confession believable, police improperly fed Woods details of the crime known only to themselves and the murderer.

After 35 years, Ms. Woods obtained freedom

In 2013, DNA testing was conducted on evidence from the Michelle Mitchell crime scene, including a cigarette butt found next to Michelle's body. The testing revealed that the DNA did not come from Ms. Woods.

Instead, it matches a male serial rapist and murder named Rodney Halbower, who has been linked through DNA evidence to the murders of three other young women in northern California. Those murders were committed at around the same time as Michelle Mitchell's murder.

In 2014, Ms. Woods' post-conviction attorneys moved for a new trial on the basis of this newly discovered evidence. On September 10, 2014, the trial court granted Ms. Woods's motion for a new trial and vacated her conviction. Charges remained pending against her for an additional six months. In March 2015, the State of Nevada filed a motion to dismiss the charges, and the charges against Ms. Woods were dismissed.

"While Ms. Woods' case is extraordinary for the extreme length of her wrongful incarceration, it was tragically common in other crucial respects," said Elizabeth Wang, attorney at Loevy & Loevy. "At the time of her wrongful arrest, Ms. Woods was a poorly educated young woman with diagnosed severe mental illness. The authorities charged with protecting her instead took advantage of her mental illness. In doing so they betrayed their professional ethics and intentionally framed her."

A copy of the suit, Cathy Woods ( a/k/a Anita Carter ), by and through her Personal Representative, Linda Wade, v. City of Reno, NV, et al., Case Number 3:16-cv-00494 is available here. A royalty-free, high resolution 1980 photo of Ms. Woods is available by sending an email to andy@loevy.com with the subject line, "Send Ms. Woods photo."


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