WA woman wrongfully imprisoned 35 years will get millions in settlements

Aug 18, 2020, 5:31 AM | Updated: 5:31 am

A Puget Sound resident who holds the record as the longest wrongfully imprisoned woman in U.S. history is set to receive millions in compensation.

When Cathy Woods was exonerated in 2015, she had spent over half her life in a Nevada prison for a murder she didn’t commit.

Now, Woods is on track to get over $9 million in settlements from the cities of Reno and Shreveport, and from the state of Nevada, for the wrongful conviction that cost her 35 years of her life.

“The upshot is that Ms. Woods gets finality and a stipulation to a certificate of innocence from the state of Nevada and $9.6 million to move on with her life,” said Woods’ attorney David Owens.

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Woods initially became a suspect in the 1976 murder of 19-year-old college student Michelle Mitchell in Reno because of a statement she made while involuntarily committed in a psychiatric hospital. Owens said police took advantage of Woods’ struggles with schizophrenia to get a false confession out of her.

“The police decide that they have cracked the case … left with an 11-page, single-spaced statement that they never asked Woods to sign, never read her her Miranda rights before they wrote,” he said. “It’s something that was unfair and impossible because she’s innocent.”

Often in “high profile cases where there’s pressure on police officers to close the case,” Owens said, detectives are desperate to find the perpetrator. In this case, he said, Woods fit the bill — even though her DNA was not found at the crime scene.

“The police sort of just rode roughshod over her rights and concern for them, and just decided this is who they were going to go after,” he said.

In 2014, thanks to technology that hadn’t been available in 1976, DNA evidence that had been found at the scene of the crime connected Rodney Halbower, serving in prison in Oregon, to the murder. Halbower is already serving a life sentence for the murder of two other young women in 1976 in San Francisco.

Owens says Woods’ mental health difficulties were exacerbated while she was in prison for so long –especially in the conditions of the 1980s, which included the use of electro-shock therapy.

“For somebody who has suffered from mental illness that includes being afraid and paranoid, this is literally your worst nightmare — the state has come and arrested you for something you didn’t do,” he said. “Her mental health has been extremely, extremely difficult.”

Woods’ story is not the only one of its kind. Owens said that women who are wrongfully imprisoned are often painted in court as sexualized, emotionally uncontrollable beings who commit romantically-based murders. This was also seen in the high-profile murder trial of another Washington resident, Amanda Knox, who was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly four years in Italy before being acquitted and released.

“There are undoubtedly areas in which there are patterns of sexism and anti-womanism that have run through the phenomenon of wrongful convictions — in particular where it’s a crime of passion and women are sexualized,” Owens said.

In Woods’ case, he said prosecutors portrayed her as a jealous lesbian who had murdered Mitchell for turning down her advances.

“You see a sexualization of women in cases like this, as with Amanda Knox, because it’s also sort of part of the overall problem of not taking women seriously, and viewing them as emotional, and also emotions related to romance,” he said. “And so I do definitely think that there are some connections that we see there.”

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WA woman wrongfully imprisoned 35 years will get millions in settlements