Woman Spent 35 Years In Prison For Crime She Didn't Commit; Exonerated Through DNA
How DNA from a cigarette butt proved Cathy Woods' innocence and led to a possible serial killer.
RENO, NV — After 35 years in prison for a 1976 murder she did not commit, Cathy Woods walked free in 2015. The liberating factor was DNA from a discarded cigarette butt, which not only proved Woods innocent, it directly linked a multiply convicted felon to the crime scene — and connected him to two other unsolved killings committed the same year.
On February 24, 1976, nursing student Michelle Mitchell’s Volkswagen Beetle broke down near the campus of the University of Nevada-Reno. The 19-year-old called her mother for a ride, but she could not be found when her mom showed up. Several hours later, Mitchell’s lifeless body was discovered in a local garage, her hands bound behind her and her throat savagely slit.
Witnesses reported seeing a man flee the area, but police had little actual evidence to work with — no footprints, no fingerprints, no weapon. Only a cigarette butt remained at the scene.
For three years, the trail went cold. Then, in February 1979, police said Cathy Woods, a patient committed to a Louisiana psychiatric hospital, told one of her caregivers that she had murdered a young woman in Reno named Michelle.
Cathy Woods was, and remains, a diagnosed schizophrenic. She had been treated for mental illness throughout her life, first being hospitalized when she was just 11.
In addition to “confessing” to killing Mitchell, Woods reportedly also told the cops she worked for the FBI. Woods had been working in Reno when the murder happened, but the details she shared did not match anything reported about the crime.
Woods also could not direct authorities to any further evidence, and a search of her mother’s residence resulted in no other discoveries. Despite all that, Reno authorities pushed forward to prosecute Woods for the crime.
During the 1980 trial, a detective testified that Woods told him she was a lesbian and she spotted Mitchell stranded by the roadside, whereupon she offered the student a lift. The detective said Woods claimed she made a sexual advance on Mitchell, got rebuffed, and, in anger, slashed the victim’s throat.
The jury convicted Woods and sentenced her to life without the possibility of parole. After a judge overturned that ruling, a second trial in 1985 led to a second conviction of life without parole. For the next three decades, then, Woods suffered behind bars for something she hadn’t done.
Compounding her mental illness, Cathy Woods also has tremendous difficulty reading and writing. These conditions made it hard for her to reach out for help. Finally, in 2013, another inmate put Woods in touch with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project, where a lawyer successfully petitioned for a DNA test on the crime scene evidence.
The test not only failed to link Woods to any of the materials, it also identified the DNA on the cigarette butt as belonging to a male. The test results were sent to the FBI’s national database where, in July 2014, they matched a recently uploaded DNA profile belonging to convicted rapist Rodney Halbower.
At the time of Michelle Mitchell’s murder, Halbower was free on bond awaiting trial for the rape of a blackjack dealer in Reno. He was later found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison. In 1986, though, Halbower escaped and fled to Oregon, where he attacked and stabbed a woman who just barely survived.
After returning to jail in Reno and finishing his rape sentence in 2014, authorities turned Halbower over to Oregon officials, who took a sample of his DNA. That decision exonerated Cathy Woods and connected Halbower to the Mitchell slaying.
Beyond just the Mitchell case, Halbower’s DNA matched sperm gathered from two of five unsolved 1976 homicides in California known as the “Gypsy Hill killings.” In September 2018, a jury convicted Halbower of those two murders, and he received two consecutive life sentences.
The family of Michelle Mitchell hopes that Halbower will also be tried in Reno for her murder, but authorities have not yet moved forward with any such legal proceedings.
Cathy Woods’ conviction for the murder of Michelle Mitchell was vacated in 2015. The following year, she filed multiple civil-rights lawsuits in federal court. They remain unsettled at present. At issue, authorities say, is Woods' ability to testify, as well as how much time has passed.
Reno Deputy City Attorney Mark Hughs said, “None of the persons who were involved work with the city any longer. It’s sort of an archeological dig. This is a very unique case.”
Regardless, Cathy Woods remains one of the longest-serving female inmates convicted of a crime it is now known she did not perpetrate. It is hoped that DNA and other developing technologies will also make her among the last.