Evidence Stored For Decades Key In Reopening 38-Year-Old Murder Case

Washoe County Court House Evidence Room
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RENO, NV - One floor below the Washoe County Court House, adjacent to its secure underground garage, a door leads to a room that contains the evidence gathered during most of a century of criminal and civil cases tried in the courtrooms above.

Name a high visibility case in the past several decades, you'll find it here in box after box, on a shelf, standing in a corner, alongside other cases long forgotten.

Stop and think. It's sobering, almost overwhelming, to consider what this room contains.

"We traffic as judges in very sad events," says Judge David Hardy, Chief Judge of the Second Judicial District, " events that trigger the heart and we feel those events in this room. This is a museum of this community's experience."

Most of it is out of sight, sealed in boxes.

There's paperwork certainly, but also clothing, a variety of articles gathered at crime scenes.

There are court room exhibits, pieces of automobiles, a motor bike, in one aisle, a guard rail that once stood on the Mount Rose Highway, evidence in a murder case that grew from a staged accident.

And there are weapons, a studded club, guns, of course, even a crossbow.

It may look chaotic, but it's all carefully cataloged and when a request came to reexamine evidence in the murder of Michelle Mitchell, Mario Lopez emerged with the evidence used in Cathy Woods' trials.

Photographs of the crime scene and all the principals, the victims clothing, cord used to bind her.

And, inside a tiny sealed evidence envelope, the piece that alone launched a reexamination of the entire case, a cigarette butt left at the victim's feet.

It contained D-N-A that didn't match Woods, but did match that of a killer responsible for five unsolved cases in the Bay Area from the same time period.

D-N-A testing didn't exist when all this went into the evidence room decades ago. Advances in forensic science have made storing all of this potentially all the more important.

This is why evidence is brought here and kept often for a lifetime.

"There is something somber. really gritty about this room," says Judge Hardy. "It represents the story, unfortunately the end story of real people in our community with families in real circumstances.

And it may have more stories to tell?

Undoubtedly. I believe that."

In fact. Hardy says that's been happening.

"With the advance of technology, we're receiving invitations to reexamine cases through DNA technology."

There is evidence in the room dating back to the 20's and 30's. Judge Hardy says some is being purged and the files are being computerized as they're planning moving it all to a new room on the ground floor.

But, he says, they will always err on the side of caution.

There's no urgency to discard any of it and, as we've just learned, compelling reason to preserve it in cases even decades old.

Wednesday Judge Patrick Flanagan set a May 14th hearing on the motion for a new trial for Cathy Woods and promised he will not let the case linger.

Meanwhile, this week a joint task force is beginning its search for the man who left his DNA at 6 murder scenes here and in the Bay Area.

Both efforts launched by evidence, gathered at a crime scene, put in a tiny sealed envelope and stored decades ago in Washoe County's evidence room.