The Stolen Life of Cathy Woods

Former police detective John Lawrence Kimpton had crested the biblical threescore-and-ten in 2011 when he passed away in the company of loved ones in a Reno hospital room. He should have died in the prison cell that by that time been occupied for more than thirty years by Cathy Woods, an innocent woman whom he had helped frame for murder. In 2015, after DNA evidence cleared Woods of the murder, she was released from prison. She was 66 years old, and her entire adult life had been stolen by Kimpton and his accomplices.

In a society actually ruled by law, the perpetrators responsible for that crime – Kimpton, former Reno PD Lieutenant Lawrence C. Dennison, former Shreveport, Louisiana detectives Donald W. Ashley and Clarence A. Lewis, and prosecutor Calvin Dunlap – would be compelled to serve out the balance of their victim’s unjust prison sentence. That would validate the principle of equal justice if we accept the dubious idea that confining someone in a government cage is a suitable way to achieve restitution for a violent crime. A better arrangement would be to compel them to serve out their days as indentured servants to the woman whose life they destroyed.

In the world that is too much with us, however, the most urgent priority of the “justice” system is to insulate abusive officials from accountability for their crimes against the innocent. Thus it was that when Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks and incumbent Reno Deputy Police Chief Mac Venzon grudgingly announced in March 2015 that Woods was “no longer a suspect,” they graciously excused the criminal actions of the people who had wrongfully imprisoned Woods, while demanding praise for the “system” that yielded such an outcome.

“I don’t know if I would characterize them as mistakes,” Venzon said when asked about the methods that had been used to manipulate a mentally disabled woman into an unjust conviction. The Chief had a point, albeit not the one he may have intended: The actions of Kimpton and his comrades were deliberate crimes, not honest “mistakes.” In any case, the objective truth doesn’t matter, because Woods “was convicted twice by a jury of her peers and so our system, while not perfect, is the best system in the world.”

In the system as it exists – as opposed to the one that is advertised – one key function of the jury is to act as a human shield for police officers and prosecutors in cases of wrongful conviction. Hicks was similarly indulgent toward the men who had preyed on Woods with calculated indifference to the truth.

“I do not fault the law enforcement involved in the original investigation, the prosecution or the two juries that found Cathy Woods guilty,” warbled Hicks. “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.” Besides, he continued, in 1979 the investigating officers “did not have the incredible tool of DNA.”

Hicks is a prosecutor, which means that deliberate dishonesty is a well-worn implement in his professional toolkit. As we will see anon, he lied in claiming that Woods had offered “intentional confessions” regarding the 1976 murder of 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell. Furthermore, the ability to use DNA evidence would have been useful only if the functionaries who framed Woods had been seeking to solve a crime. That wasn’t their objective: They were only interested in clearing a case, and this was made possible by the sudden availability of a vulnerable, suggestible victim.

Mitchell’s body had been found in a garage near the campus of the University of Nevada-Reno. Her hands had been bound, her throat had been cut, and there were indications that the crime had been committed by a sexual predator. A cigarette had been discarded near the victim’s body, and the footprint of a man’s size nine shoe was also found in the garage where the murder occurred. A suspicious-looking man was observed near the scene by several witnesses, one of whom reported that he appeared to have blood on his hands.

At the time of the murder, Woods lived in Reno not far from the scene of the crime. Three years later, as public frustration grew over Mitchell’s unsolved murder, Woods came to the attention of police in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Woods was afflicted with persistent auditory hallucinations and incapable of sustaining a linear conversation.

During one session with Carol Sherman, a counselor at LSU Medical Center, Woods made a fleeting reference to the well-publicized murder of Michelle Mitchell. She said nothing more than what could be read in the newspapers, or absorbed from television news coverage of the crime.

For reasons incomprehensible to a rational person, Sherman chose to treat this as a quasi-confession, rather than recognizing this as something that bobbed to the surface during a borderline-aphasic monolog by a patient prone to severe psychosis. She called Detective Ashley, who in turn got in touch with Kimpton and Dennison in Reno.

There was no sense in which Woods remotely resembled the physical description of the suspect. She was a short, dark-haired woman, rather than a stocky, sandy-haired man nearly six feet tall. Her shoes were several sizes smaller than the footprint found at the murder scene. She was severely symptomatic and obviously unable to respond competently to the questions posed to her. None of this mattered to the police detectives.

Dispensing with any pretense that they were interested in following the evidence to the actual killer, they relentlessly interrogated their delusional captive, carefully feeding her details of the case and prompting her to say something that could be construed as a confession. At the beginning of the ordeal, Woods made it clear that she had no personal knowledge of the crime. Undeterred, the detectives insisted that she did, and made it clear that they would not release her until she cooperated by confirming that claim.

On the second day, Woods – who by this time had some understanding of what her captors were doing – told one of her attending physicians, Dr. Linda Boswell, that she wanted an attorney. The officers broke the law by denying her that right, assuring her that an attorney would simply prolong the unpleasant experience.

At one point she pleaded to be relocated to safer quarters at the hospital. She was told that request would be granted only if she could prove that she was “dangerous.” At some point thereafter, Woods allegedly said that she murdered Michelle Mitchell in obedience to a “satanic voice.” She also asserted that she worked for the FBI, a claim much more plausible than her confession.

It is very likely that Woods never offered a confession of any kind. The detectives spared no effort to avoid making a contemporaneous, objective record of the interrogation. Tape recorders were available, but none was used to document the sessions, and no notes were taken at the time. Woods did not write a confession, nor was she asked to sign one. It wasn’t until several days later that the detectives bothered to commit their fiction to print.

At the time, the Washoe County DA was an ambitious young lawyer named Cal Dunlap. During subsequent decades, as Woods was trying to survive her term within the Regime’s rape factory, Dunlap would build a lucrative career as a celebrity trial attorney who appears to have a gift for exploiting psychologically unbalanced women. The murder conviction of Cathy Woods was Dunlap’s first professional success.

There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, and Woods obviously wasn’t the suspicious male who had been seen at the location of the crime shortly after the killing took place. She just as obviously did not make the male size-nine footprint found near Mitchell’s body. Her defense attorney pointed out that the only way Woods could have been responsible for that footprint is if she unaccountably decided to commit the crime while wearing “clown shoes.”

No physical or other direct evidence connected Woods to the murder, and there was the added complication that the police had been looking for a man suspected in a string of similar murders in nearby northern California. All Dunlap had in his arsenal was a palpably implausible confession from a visibly disturbed woman – and his own inexhaustible cynicism.

Few things are deadlier than a prosecutor unburdened by scruples and blessed with a credulous jury. Dunlap devised a theory of the crime that played to prurient interests: Woods was depicted as a lesbian who killed the frail, blonde-haired Mitchell after the 19-year-old rejected her sexual advances. Describing Woods as a spurned and vengeful lesbian “was part of their way to try and explain away the fact that they had been looking for a man,” appellate attorney Elizabeth Wang would later observe.

This was enough to win a conviction from the trial jury. Woods was granted a new trial in 1985 after a Nevada appeals court ruled that the trial judge had improperly suppressed potentially exculpatory testimony. The second jury also convicted Woods, this time, because her “confession” was riddled with details that only the true killer would know. Those details were inserted into the narrative by the detectives who composed that work of fiction.

Shortly after Woods was taken back to prison, the man who actually killed Mitchell escaped. Rodney Halbower, who had been convicted of robbery and attempted murder, freed himself long enough to stab a woman in a parking lot. After being recaptured, Halbower was convicted of an additional charge of attempted murder.

In 2011, Halbower was compelled to undergo a DNA test before a prison transfer. This development occurred at roughly the same time that former Detective Kimpton – who was eulogized as a man of principle and piety – departed this life for whatever destination awaits the souls of impenitent perjurers and kidnappers.

Two years later, after Woods – with the help of a fellow inmate – filed a motion for post-conviction relief, a DNA test on the cigarette that had been discarded next to Mitchell’s body was found to match Halbower. He has now been charged with that killing and at least two others. This was one of an ever-growing number of cases in which a murder was solved only because of the persistence of an innocent person who had spent years in prison for the crimes of others – both the original offender and the corrupt functionaries who engineered the wrongful conviction.

Cathy Woods survived what was, in essence, a protracted murder attempt. The men who framed her were aware that a prison term would probably kill her. She survived three decades of imprisonment that were punctuated with potentially lethal violence, a suicide attempt, and electroshock “therapy.”

Since those responsible for her suffering are protected by the legal fiction called “qualified immunity,” Woods has filed a civil rights lawsuit that will most likely result in a subsidized seven-figure settlement – assuming that she lives long enough to collect.

Kimpton is beyond mortal punishment, but his co-conspirators are still among the living. A legal system actually devoted to justice would require that they spend the rest of their lives confined in the cell to which they had consigned Cathy Woods nearly four decades ago. Regrettably, that option isn’t available in what Reno PD Chief Venzon smugly described as “the best system in the world.”

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