Cathy Woods was wrongfully accused and convicted of the murder of college student Michelle Mitchell

By Christine Pelisek
August 29, 2019 05:02 PM
Cathy Woods
Andy Barron/The Reno Gazette-Journal/AP

A Nevada woman who spent 35 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit will receive $3 million in a partial settlement, according to her lawyer.

Cathy Woods’ partial settlement came about three years after she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Washoe County, Nevada, a former county prosecutor and detectives for her wrongful conviction in the 1976 slaying of 19-year-old Reno nursing student Michelle Mitchell, who was found with her hands bound behind her back and her throat slashed.

Woods, 69,  alleges her conviction was based on a confession that was fabricated by detectives.

She was released from prison in 2015 after prosecutors dismissed charges against her after DNA discovered on a Marlboro cigarette butt in a garage near Mitchell’s body was linked to Oregon inmate Rodney Halbower.

“We are pleased we were able to reach the partial settlement and we are hoping the settlement money will go towards her care which is what she needs,” civil rights attorney Elizabeth Wang tells PEOPLE.

Wang says Woods is the longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history.

Mitchell disappeared on Feb. 24, 1976, after having car trouble near the University of Nevada-Reno campus. Her dead body was found a few hours later in a garage.

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Yang says her case went cold until March of 1979 when Woods, an inpatient at a Louisiana mental hospital, made a statement to a counselor about being involved in the murder of a “girl in Reno.”

“She didn’t give any information that hadn’t been reported in the news,” says Wang. “She had mental health issues that caused her to make sort of a vague statement to the institutional counsellor, but she certainly didn’t actually confess to the crime itself in the way the police officer said she did.”

Wang says Woods was charged with the murder and brought back to Nevada where she was convicted in separate murder trials in 1980 and 1985.

“There was never any physical or any other evidence against her,” says Wang.

Years later, Woods saw a program about DNA testing and with the help of a public defender petitioned to have crime scene evidence tested. This led to her exoneration and the crime being linked to Halbower, who is serving time for two murders.

Commissioners unanimously approved the settlement agreement at the Board of County Commission meeting on August 27, 2019.

Today, Wang says Woods is “trying to enjoy what she has now.”

“She is living in Washington state with a guardian,” she says. “The money is going to go towards caring for her.”

“She is an extremely sweet individual who should never have endured what she went through,” Wang adds.

Washoe County issued a statement to PEOPLE saying: “While money can rarely compensate an individual for loss of freedom, Washoe County sincerely hopes that this monetary settlement will be utilized for the best possible care of Woods.

“The conviction and subsequent incarceration of Woods for murder is a tragic situation that Washoe County hopes is never repeated.

Through increased awareness and understanding of mental health issues, greater public resources, and the advent of DNA technology in law enforcement, we believe a situation like this is unlikely to be repeated.”

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