She confessed to a murder she didn’t commit. Now she’s seeking compensation from those who arrested her
At age 67, Cathy Woods finally has her own place to live. It’s a rental unit in Gig Harbor, Wash., a mellow port town across the Puget Sound Narrows from Tacoma. Her guardian is a short stroll away.
Before that, Woods lived in crowded prison cells and hospital wards for 35 years. Her story, four decades in the making, continues to unfold today and poses a difficult question: What, if anything, should be done for Cathy Woods, who was imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit?
“Wouldn’t it make sense at some point to step back and have a settlement conference and see if the parties can come together here in Reno and try to settle this case?” asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Valerie Cooke at a recent federal hearing in Nevada. The civil trial Cooke is overseeing is scheduled to begin next year after the current discovery stage is completed, but she wonders about the efficacy of such proceedings if some witnesses and evidence are no longer available.
After all, it was 1980 when Woods was convicted of killing a young woman four years earlier in Reno, where Woods worked as a bartender. Prosecutors claimed Woods slit the throat of 19-year-old University of Nevada nursing student Michelle Mitchell after she rebuffed Woods’ sexual overtures. In time, Woods would become America’s longest-serving wrongly convicted female inmate, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
For certain, it was a murder she did not commit. And a prison sentence she should not have served. Yet it was a bloody crime to which she “confessed” — in a statement written by police.
Criminal justice experts say her case raises questions about how police interrogate the mentally ill and is a troubling reminder that wrongful convictions do occur and that people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.
Police did not tape-record Woods’ interrogation. Her case inspired a bill in the Nevada Legislature last year that would have made recordings uniform and mandatory. The bill by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, a Las Vegas Democrat, was backed by the ACLU and Nevada Innocence Project. Yeager said it would protect “people who are more vulnerable and susceptible to false confessions, including juveniles and those with mental limitations.”
At a bill hearing, Michelle Feldman of the Nevada Innocence Project, said, “False confessions are a leading contributor to wrongful convictions nationally. Here in Nevada, they played a role in two of nine wrongful convictions overturned.”
Kate Hickman, the county’s chief deputy public defender, said that “when the police officers testified to the jury, they said Ms. Woods did not appear mentally ill.… They did not see the mental illness in her. They did not see the suggestibility. They did not see that she got every single detail, including the color of the car and the inability to tie a knot in a rope, incorrect. The detectives’ ability to come and testify, ‘She told us this,’ without a jury hearing it from her was incredibly damaging to her and played a huge role in her being convicted of a crime she did not commit.”
Yeager’s bill passed the Assembly but died in the Senate, with 18 nays and just three yeas.
Woods’ lawsuit claims that interrogators failed to advise her of her right to silence, ignored her request for an attorney, wouldn’t allow her to leave the room and used her debilitating mental condition against her. Police wrote out the admission of sorts, using their notes and memories. Woods never signed the document, but investigators testified that their account reflected what she said during her interrogation.
At the time, she was housed in a mental ward at Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport, La. She later said she had bragged of committing the killing in the misguided belief that by appearing dangerous she would get her own room.
Her lawsuit names government agencies and four officials — ex-Reno Police Lt. Lawrence C. Dennison, former Shreveport Det. Donald W. Ashley, onetime Shreveport Det. Clarence A. “Jackie” Lewis, and former Washoe County Dist. Atty. Calvin X. Dunlap. All deny forcing a confession from Woods and say they were acting under the color of law and are legally protected from lawsuits such as this.
Woods was found guilty twice, once in a 1980 trial — a verdict that was overturned — and again in a 1985 retrial. She was sentenced to life without parole.
“Prison is difficult enough to handle on its own,” said her attorney, Elizabeth Wang. “What must it be like to also be mentally ill — and innocent? The police didn’t care if she was guilty or not. They just wanted to close a case.”
Wang said she prefers not to allow Woods to be interviewed by the media during litigation. She “is seriously mentally ill,” Wang said of her aging client, a stocky woman with thick dark hair often seen strolling the park-like shoreline of Gig Harbor.
Woods’ true name is Anita Carter, according to Wang. The murder case against her was filed under Carter, but she prefers to be known today as Woods, the name on her 2016 civil case claiming she was framed.
“Anita,” said Wang, who switches back and forth between her client’s names, “is aware of what is happening, understands the legal process, and is dealing with the wrongful conviction as best a person in her condition can.”
The Georgia-born Woods received only an elementary school education and was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12. She went on to be hospitalized numerous times for psychiatric treatment in her 20s and was involuntarily committed for paranoid schizophrenia at age 29 by her mother.
Woods earned her freedom after a routine DNA test of a prison inmate tied Mitchell’s death to Rodney Halbower, 69, a suspected serial killer and rapist in Oregon who has spent decades in prison. Halbower has yet to be formally charged with Mitchell’s slaying.
Woods was freed in 2016 and walked out the prison door with a few belongings, memories of electroshock therapy and suicide attempts including setting herself on fire, her attorney says. She was missing some teeth as well.
“I do not fault the law enforcement involved in the original investigation, the prosecution, or the two juries that found Cathy Woods guilty,” Washoe County Dist. Atty. Chris Hicks said at a 2015 news conference. “They were faced with a vicious and tragic unsolved murder and were presented with details of intentional confessions from a person who resided in the area at the time of the murder. They did not have the incredible tool of DNA.”
Today, Woods lives a cautious, solitary life along Puget Sound. “We will wrap up discovery and then get a trial date for sometime next year,” Wang said. “Will there be a settlement? I have no idea.”
Judge Cooke hopes it comes to that. At the last Reno hearing, she urged the two sides to work toward an agreement.
“This is going to be a very complicated case. This is 40 years ago. I have a feeling many of these people are not going to remember much of anything,” Cooke said.
Anderson is a special correspondent.
The Latinx experience chronicled
Get the Latinx Files newsletter for stories that capture the multitudes within our communities.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.