By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A special prosecutor has dismissed a first-degree murder charge against a northwest Missouri man facing a third trial in his neighbor's 1990 death - the latest and likely final legal victory in a nearly quarter-century effort to clear his name.
Former Clay County prosecutor Don Norris ruled Tuesday that there was insufficient probable cause in the criminal case against Mark Woodworth, who was 16 when Cathy Robertson was shot and killed in her bed in the rural community of Chillicothe.
A succession of court rulings had made it increasingly difficult for prosecutors to build a case with no witnesses, little physical evidence and a questionable motive. Norris acknowledged those hurdles Tuesday in an Associated Press interview.
"There was no evidence left for me to try the case," said Norris, a former associate circuit judge who also spent six years as Clay County's elected prosecutor.
Woodworth, 39, was sentenced to life in prison before his first two convictions were overturned on appeal. He has been free on bail since January 2013, when the Missouri Supreme Court said prosecutors failed to share evidence that could have helped his defense.
Defense attorney Bob Ramsey said Woodworth was "elated" when he spoke with his client by phone Tuesday.
"I could almost feel the 1,000-pound weight lifted off his shoulders," Ramsey said.
A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster declined comment. A representative of the Robertson family did not immediately respond to an interview request.
Cathy Robertson was fatally shot on Nov. 13, 1990, at her home outside Chillicothe, about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City. Her husband, Lyndel Robertson, was a partner of Woodworth's father before a business dispute unraveled the relationship.
He was shot that day, but survived and initially identified a suspect other than Woodworth from his hospital bed - his oldest daughter's abusive ex-boyfriend, who insisted he was asleep 90 miles away at the time and was never charged even though forensics tests revealed trace elements of gunpowder on his hands.
Robertson later said he was only speculating, though according to court docments, the ex-boyfriend later told a California commodities investor during an argument that "he got away with murder and was not scared to do it again."
Norris was appointed in February to replace Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren, who asked to be removed after Robertson family members told him they were concerned about his ability to be impartial in part because the killings happened in that county.
Now a lawyer in private practice, Norris declared his belief in Woodworth's innocence without prompting.
"Based upon my review of the evidence, the wrong person was charged in the first place," he said Tuesday.
Platte County Circuit Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. had barred the Missouri Attorney General's Office from trying the case again due to previous prosecutorial missteps, ruling that the case requires an independent review "by a prosecutor unburdened by past participation."
The judge also decided to exclude key ballistics evidence used to convict Woodworth after finding that the suspected murder weapon and a bullet surgically removed from Lyndel Robertson may have been improperly handled by a private investigator. The investigator later teamed up with the Livingston County sheriff's deputy overseeing the investigation - a move the Missouri Supreme Court said led to "serious investigative misconduct."
Hull's call for an independent review followed a similar conclusion in 2012 by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who also recommended a review by an independent prosecutor and called Woodworth's earlier convictions a "manifest injustice."
Oxenhandler determined that state prosecutors failed to provide Woodworth's attorneys with copies of letters, first publicly disclosed by the AP in 2009, that cast doubt on Woodworth's guilt. The letters were between a Livingston County judge, state and local prosecutors and Lyndel Robertson.
One written by Doug Roberts, the local prosecutor at the time, described how Lyndel Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man." Roberts also said he didn't have solid evidence to charge Woodworth and asked to be removed from the case because of pressure from the judge and Lyndel Robertson to file charges.
The prosecutor at Woodworth's first trial was Kenny Hulshof, who went on to serve six terms in Congress but whose career as a special state prosecutor was marked by a pattern of court rulings questioning his courtroom behavior. Two men he helped convict for murder have since been released.
Woodworth's father Claude said his son wasn't immediately available to discuss the dismissal because he was busy mowing the lawn - committed to finishing the day's work despite his newfound freedom.
"I'm just overwhelmed," he said. "The sun started shining a little brighter, and the sky got a little bluer."