Police Locked Woman in Prison for 35 Yrs Because They “Thought She Was a Lesbian”

Mike Heuer | Courthouse News Service

RENO, Nev. (CN) — Homophobic Reno police officers, believing a paranoid schizophrenic woman was a lesbian, fabricated evidence that sent her to prison for 35 years for a murder committed by a man, making her the “longest-ever wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history,” her attorney says.

Rather than pursue a likely suspect, Reno police in 1979 framed Cathy Woods for murder committed by a male serial killer, her attorney Edmund Gorman Jr. says in a federal complaint Monday against Reno, Washoe County and its former district attorney, four police officers and a doctor.

Woods, now 66, was exonerated by DNA testing in 2014. She was arrested in 1979 and wrongfully convicted of the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell.

“Facing the pressure of solving a high-profile cold case they had previously (and rightly) investigated as a crime perpetrated by a man, who they also believed was a serial killer, defendants decided to contradict their years of prior investigation and turn to misconduct in order to ‘solve’ the case.” (Parentheses in complaint.)

When she was arrested, Woods was involuntarily committed to a state mental hospital in Shreveport, La., diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

“Egregiously, the defendants preyed on Ms. Woods because she was mentally vulnerable and also due to their homophobia, as they believed she was a lesbian,” the complaint states. Her attorneys say police officers in Reno and Shreveport “coerced and fabricated statements attributed to Ms. Woods they knew to be false and involuntary,” fabricated her false confession, fabricated evidence and suppressed exculpatory evidence.

Attorney Gorman, in Reno, filed the complaint through Woods’s personal representative Linda Wade. The attorney said in a statement Monday: “Despite multiple witness reports of a man fleeing the scene of the crime, the officers with no evidence concocted a homophobic theory that Ms. Woods is a lesbian, that her ‘mannish’ appearance explained the witness reports, and that she murdered Ms. Mitchell for rejecting her sexual advances.”

Gorman said that according to the National Registry of Exonerations Database, Woods is the “longest-ever wrongfully incarcerated woman in U.S. history.”

Woods’s lifelong history of severe mental illness was exacerbated by her 35 years of wrongful imprisonment, according to the 34-page complaint. She was hospitalized with schizophrenia when she was 12, could barely read, had the education level of a sixth-grader, and a below-average IQ when she was charged and convicted.

Woods lived in Reno until 1977, where she worked as a bartender, then moved to Shreveport to be with her family.

In 2014, after Woods had served 35 years in prison, the FBI conducted DNA analysis on evidence found at the scene of Mitchell’s murder. It contained DNA of Rodney Halbower, “a serial rapist and murderer,” who is serving a sentence in an Oregon prison, according to the complaint.

The Reno-Gazette Journal reported on Monday that the evidence containing Halbower’s DNA was a cigarette butt.

Michelle Mitchell, 19, was a nursing student at University of Nevada-Reno and had car trouble before she was murdered on Feb. 24, 1976. Several witnesses said they saw a man with her near a university parking lot. Her body was found that evening with her throat slashed and hands bound in the detached garage of a Reno home.
She was thought to be a victim of a male serial killer, later identified as Halbower. He faces charges for the serial slayings of at least five women in the San Francisco Bay area, known as the Gypsy Hill murders, according to the Gazette-Journal.

Woods seeks indemnification for civil rights violations, malicious prosecution, failure to intervene, conspiracy, abuse of process and emotional distress.

In addition to Reno and Washoe County, the defendants are former Reno police Lt. Lawrence C. Dennison, Reno police Det. John L. Kimpton, Shreveport police Dets. Donald W. Ashley and Clarence A. “Jackie” Lewis, former Washoe County District Attorney Calvin R.X. Dunlop, and Dr. Douglas M. Burks, who was an employee of the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport.


A spokesman for the Reno Police could not be reached by telephone after office hours Monday.

Gorman is assisted by attorneys with the law offices of Loevy & Loevy, in Boulder, Colo., and Chicago.

Published by Courthouse News Service.

If you haven't already, be sure to like our Filming Cops Page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Please visit our sister site Smokers ONLY

Sign Up To Receive Your Free E-Book
‘Advanced Strategies On Filming Police’

About author

Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

You might also like