Exonerated for 1976 murder, Woods files suit

RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Back in 1976 the murder of UNR co-ed Michelle Mitchell shook Northern Nevada to its core. She was found in a garage near campus, her throat slit, her hands bound.

The murder went unsolved until 1979, when a mental patient named Cathy Woods confessed at a psychiatric hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Reno Police sent an investigator to Louisiana; he didn't record the interview, and signed a report nearly two days later. Woods was arrested and tried twice for the crime, convicted both times.

“She was portrayed as a monster. Just a deviant monster,” said Woods' defense attorney at her second trial, Lee Hotchkins.

Woods' attorneys claim law enforcement and the district attorney believed a man was responsible for the Mitchell murder. With Woods in the picture, they claimed she was a lesbian, and killed Mitchell because Michelle thwarted Woods’ advances. A psychologist for the prosecution claimed the murder was a homosexual slaying.

“Both law enforcement and the prosecutor, Calvin Dunlap, focused quite a bit on what they believed was her lesbianism, in part because they had been looking for a male suspect they had been looking for three years prior to when Cathy's name first came up. So this was part of their way to try and explain away the fact they had been looking for a man,” says Elizabeth Wang, an attorney for Woods.

Wang, with the law firm of Loevey and Loevey, specializes in civil rights claims. In the suit on behalf of Woods, they claim law enforcement and the district attorney’s office were anxious to solve a cold case. They allege police misconduct during Woods' interview at the mental hospital, that her 5th and 14th amendment rights were violated, and that there was a conspiracy to deprive Woods of her constitutional rights... all of which, the suit claims, denied Woods a life for herself outside prison walls.

Woods entered prison at 29 and was released at age 64.

“We seek monetary damages to compensate her for the defendants taking 35 years of her life,” says Wang.

The DNA on the cigarette was eventually traced to Rodney Halbower.
He is suspected in a serial murder case out of Northern California in the mid-1970s. Those murders occurred about the same time Mitchell was killed. Halbower has been in custody in San Mateo County for more than a year.

Recently a jury determined he was competent to stand trial.