Women's Project

Cathy Woods

Cathy Woods: charges dismissed after 30 years in prison

On Friday, March 6, 2015, Washoe County (Nevada) prosecutors dismissed murder charges against Cathy Woods, who spent 30 years in prison for the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell.   

Mitchell’s car had broken down and her body was discovered in a nearby garage.  A cigarette butt was found near her body.  In 1979, Cathy Woods, who was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Louisiana, told hospital staff that she had murdered Mitchell and later repeated her story to Reno authorities.  She was convicted of the murder in 1980, her conviction was reversed, and she was again convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Woods filed a petition in 2010 requesting DNA testing.  Woods’s DNA was not on the evidence, but DNA on the cigarette butt found near Mitchell’s body matched male DNA from two unsolved California murder cases.  In July 2014, this DNA profile was matched to Rodney Halbower.  In September 2014, Woods’s conviction was vacated, a new trial was ordered, and she was released on bail. Halbower has been charged with the unsolved California murders.

Woods’s attorney, Maizie Pusich, says Woods confessed because she wanted to get a private room in the psychiatric hospital. (Woods has recanted that confession.)  Pushich told the AP: “She was being told she wasn’t sufficiently dangerous to qualify, and within a short period she was claiming she had killed a woman in Reno.”  Pusich said Woods is doing well and delighted that the prosecution is over.

Debra Milke

Debra Milke: On March 23rd, a judge formally dismissed charges against Debra Milke. 

At a press conference, Milke said: "I always believed this day would come.  I just didn't think it would have to take 25 years, three months and 14 days to rectify such a blatant miscarriage of justice."

On December 11, 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals remanded Debra Milke’s case to the trial court for dismissal with prejudice. Milke was convicted of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping in the 1989 death of her four-year-old son. Milke had been interrogated by Detective Armando Saldate, Jr., who testified that she confessed. Milke denied confessing to the murder and the evidence at trial boiled down to her testimony against Saldate’s.

The Court of Appeals opinion characterized the State as having engaged in “egregious misconduct” by not producing known impeachment evidence regarding Saldate. This evidence included at least seven cases of alleged impropriety by Saldate involving his interrogation methods and honesty, and an incident involving a “sexual quid pro quo” with a female motorist whose car Saldate had stopped. None of this information had been disclosed to Milke before trial.

The Court of Appeals concluded that this material was “highly significant to the primary jury issue,” and because of the State’s severe prosecutorial misconduct, double jeopardy barred retrial of Milke.

Debra Milke was in prison for more than 23 years, 22 of which were on death row. If the dismissal stands, she will become the second U.S. woman to be exonerated after spending time on death row, following Sabrina Butler Porter of Mississippi, who was acquitted on retrial in 1995.

Susan Jean KingSusan Jean King exonerated (updated story)

On July 18, 2014, the Kentucky Court of Appeals granted a new trial to Susan Jean King, who spent more than five years behind bars for a crime she maintains she did not commit. King was arrested in connection with the 1998 murder of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden eight years after Breeden’s death, when a police detective assigned to the cold case identified King as the primary suspect. On the advice of her attorney King took an Alford plea to manslaughter, which allowed her to assert her innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict her. In exchange, King received a 10-year sentence with parole eligibility after two years; she faced life in prison if convicted at trial.

But, in May 2012 while being questioned regarding a different crime, Richard Jarrell, Jr. confessed to murdering Breeden. At that time the Kentucky Innocence Project (KIP) was investigating King’s case, having determined that it would have been physically impossible for her to kill Breeden. King had one leg and weighed less than 100 pounds at the time of the offense, but Breeden’s body had been thrown off a bridge. The fact that King’s left leg had been amputated was never mentioned to the grand jury that indicted her. Furthermore, Louisville narcotics Detective Barron Morgan gave Jarrell’s confession to KIP, and later claimed he was demoted for doing so.

On May 18, 2012, King’s lawyers moved for a new trial based on Jarrell’s confession. Spencer Circuit Judge Charles Hickman denied the motion. Judge Hickman acknowledged that Jarrell’s confession was evidence that “with reasonable certainty” would have changed the result of King’s prosecution if a new trial were granted: Jarrell had given the police details of the crime that were unavailable to the public, including Breeden’s activities before he was murdered, the manner in which Breeden was killed, and how Breeden’s body ended up in the river. However, Hickman held that he could not legally grant King a new trial because she had pled guilty.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals reversed Judge Hickman’s ruling, finding that King was entitled to a new trial based on Jarrell’s confession, regardless of how her conviction came about. In fact, the Kentucky Supreme Court had entertained a similar motion to King’s in another case in which the defendant had pled guilty but had newly-discovered evidence. King served her sentence and was released on mandatory reentry supervision in late 2012, shortly after the likely perpetrator confessed to the crime for which she was convicted. On October 9, 2014, King's long ordeal ended when the Commonwealth of Kentucky dropped all charges. (Read more in this Times-Courier story.)

Hannah Overton Granted New Trial (updated story)

Hannah Overton

The Women's Project has been monitoring the case of Hannah Overton since Texas highest criminal court agreed to review her case in October 2013.The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has overturned Overton's capital murder conviction and granted her a new trial, finding that her attorneys were ineffective in representing her.

Overton was convicted in 2007 of killing her four-year old foster child Andrew Burd, who died of apparent sodium poisoning. Prosecutors argued that Overton force-fed salt to Andrew, and then failed to promptly obtain medical assistance for him. Overton testified to extreme behaviors exhibited by Andrew, including constant cravings for salty foods. She testified that she took Andrew to the hospital as soon as it became apparent that something serious was wrong with him. A jury found Overton guilty based on failure to obtain medical care for Andrew Overton was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a seventeen-page written opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals found that Overton received ineffective assistance of counsel when her attorneys chose not to call or admit the deposition testimony of an expert in sodium intoxication at her trial. The expert had previously testified in a deposition that Andrew exhibited many of the features of a disorder associated with extreme eating habits, and that if Andrew did have such a disorder he could have consumed a lethal amount of salt voluntarily.The expert further stated that a child who ingested a lethal amount of sodium would not exhibit significant symptoms immediately, and that considering Andrew's sodium levels, he probably would have died regardless of medical intervention. The court opined that the expert's testimony likely would have changed the outcome of the trial. Although Overton also argued that she was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that would have shown her innocence, the court declined to decide that issue.

Update: On October 17, 2014, the Neuces County District Attorney announced that he would retry Overston, who remains behind bars while awaiting her new trial.

Why Women's Cases Are Different

Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones.
As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.
When women—traditionally viewed as nurturers and protectors—are accused of murdering or sexually abusing children, they are particularly reviled by society, including, of course, by police, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and witnesses.
In cases in which no crime has occurred—such as those arising from accidental or natural deaths that are mistaken for homicides—convictions are likely to ensue. Because the evidence in such cases is often entirely circumstantial, identifying wrongful convictions is difficult and rectifying them is complicated.
*Statistics cited on this webpage are from the National Registry of Exonerations as of February 20, 2014