A woman who has been in prison for more than 30 years for a Nevada killing was granted a new trial Monday based on recently discovered DNA evidence that her lawyer said ties an Oregon prison inmate to the 1976 slaying of a Reno student and two killings in California.
The ruling by Washoe District Judge Patrick Flanagan came after public defender Maizie Pusich said that DNA on a cigarette butt in a Reno garage where the body of 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell was found matches that of the inmate currently serving time for attempted murder.
Pusich represents 64-year-old Cathy Woods, who was convicted of killing Mitchell on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Woods was granted a new trial in the case after the DNA evidence was presented. Flanagan also ordered her release on her own recognizance and set the new trial for July 13, 2015.
"We are delighted that Cathy gets to go home and we get to try to prove to the rest of the world she was innocent all along,'" Pusich said after the hearing. "It's a horribly sad situation but thank goodness today we are moving the right direction."
Pusich said in court papers filed Monday before the hearing that the DNA found on the cigarette butt matches that of Oregon inmate Rodney L. Halbower, 66.
The FBI said in a statement issued in San Francisco later Monday that Halbower had been named as a person of interest in the killings of five young women in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1976 known as the "Gypsy Hill Murders."
The agency said the DNA link to those cases had been established by crime labs in San Mateo County, California, and Washoe County, Nevada.
Halbower is not eligible for parole until 2026. It wasn't immediately clear if he had a lawyer. Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman Betty Bernt said she couldn't find the name of a lawyer for Halbower in any prison documents.
Halbower was first sentenced to prison in Nevada for sexually assaulting a female blackjack dealer in downtown Reno in November 1975, an attack that occurred roughly two months before Mitchell was killed a few blocks away, Pusich said.
He was later sentenced to two life terms for rape and other charges. He escaped from prison twice but was recaptured before being paroled in 2013 to begin serving sentences in Oregon.
FBI spokesman Peter Hill disclosed in March that the DNA on the cigarette butt in Reno matched that of semen gathered from at least one crime scene in San Mateo, California, and that FBI agents had reopened the series of cold cases.
Pusich said Monday the DNA found at two of those California rape-murder scenes also belonged to Halbower.
"No DNA found at the Michelle Mitchell crime scene belongs to Cathy Woods," the lawyer said.
Woods' brother, Al Carter, 58, told reporters with tears in his eyes after the hearing that he had heard there were other suspects in the 1976 killing.
"I'm so happy," he said about the possibility of closure for his sister and the family of Mitchell.
While under psychiatric care at Louisiana State University Medical Center, Woods acknowledged killing Mitchell but later recanted. She was convicted of the murder in 1980, won an appeal before the Nevada Supreme Court but was convicted again in 1985.
Pusich said Woods doesn't remember acknowledging the killing after she was committed to the mental hospital by her mother for reasons unrelated to any crime.
"I'm told it was a product of wanting to get a private room," Pusich said. "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."
Carter said he had tried to maintain hope his sister would be freed eventually but was starting to fear she would end up dying in prison.
"I've heard her talk about appeals forever, but she has talked about it for so long, I thought maybe that was her mental condition," he said. "It turns out, wow, she's right."