20140306_083600_coldcolors[Known Gypsy Hill murder victims – Top row:  Left to right:  Ronnie Cascio, Tanya Marie Blackwell, Paula Baxter.  Bottom row:  Left to right:  Michelle Mitchell, Carol Lee Booth, Denise Lampe]

Cathy Woods spent 35 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.

Prosecutors announced Friday that they would not seek a retrial in the stabbing death of 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell at the University of Nevada, Reno campus in 1976.  A judge tossed Woods’ conviction in September based upon new DNA tests that linked the Reno crime to an inmate, who is facing charges in California for a series of murders that took place around the same time.

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said he didn’t fault earlier police, prosecutors and juries for sending Woods to prison, “Whenever we hear about these…cases where convicted individuals are later exonerated by DNA, it is a circumstance that upsets our society, rightly so.  It is also depicted as a strike against our modern day criminal justice system.  I would suggest otherwise.  These exonerations…who how improved our criminal justice system has become.  So as tragic and difficult as this case continues to be, the one shining light is that it shows our…system is working.”

Woods’ public defender, Maizie Pusich said, “I wish it (Woods’ exoneration) happened a long time ago, but at least it happened now when she’s in relatively good health.  As time goes by, there will be innocent people in prison who slip through the cracks because they won’t survive [imprisonment]…”

Woods, now 64, will live with her brother and his wife in California.  She remains under mental health treatment and is “doing well.” She was convicted in 1980, but got a retrial shortly afterwards.  In 1985, she was convicted at her retrial.  Both convictions were based upon a confession she made in 1979 at a psychiatric hospital in Louisiana while under going mental health treatments.  She was involuntarily committed by her mother.  She does not remember the confession. The FBI says that DNA found on Marlboro cigarettes found at the Reno crime scene suggest that Rodney Halbower, a former Oregon inmate recently charged in the deaths of two women who are among the five “Gypsy Hill” murders in California around the same time that Mitchell was killed.

Woods is “very lucky”, according to her attorney, that Halbower was required to submit a DNA sample by a law passed in 2013 after he was paroled in Nevada for a conviction of a 1975 rape and transferred to Oregon to serve a 30 year sentence for attempted murder. Woods is also lucky that a fellow female inmate helped her get DNA testing and initiate the appropriate paperwork.

“It (DNA testing) only happened because he was transferred from Nevada to Oregon,” Pusich said, “Before that, we knew the DNA on the cigarette butt wasn’t hers. But the DNA test proved it was definitely his.”

Halbower, 66, was serving the sentence in Oregon when he was extradited to California to face murders charges for the 1976 deaths of Paula Louise Baxter and Veronica Anne Cascio.  Halbower had been arrested for the rape of a 33-year-old woman in Reno in 1975 and was released on bail.  Barely a month later, the Gypsy Hill murders began.  Cascio’s body was found on January 8, 1976 and Baxter’s on February 4th.  Mitchell’s body was discovered on February 24th.

Pusich said Woods is relieved she no longer lives under the threat of prosecution and is “trying to figure out what comes next”.  She faces challenges adjusting to life outside of prison again, including introductions to new technology.  She hopes to travel to Louisiana for her mother’s 92nd birthday next month.

“She’s delighted this is finally at an end,” Pusich said, “She’s also very lucky because she has a family who can care for her and are qualified to take care of her.”

Gypsy Hill murders were committed by the San Mateo slasher.  While Halbower is not charged with all of the murders, the following are believed to be the victims of the slasher: Veronica Cascio, Tatiana Marie Blackwell, Paula Louise Baxter, Carol Lee Booth, and Denise Lampe.

In addition to Mitchell, who was not known at the time to have been a part of the Hill murders, another possible victim is Idell Friedman.  She was found naked and stabbed to death on March 17, 1976 in her apartment in San Francisco.


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