Plenty of websites for true crime buffs, such as this one called Murderpedia, still have ambiguous language on Cathy Woods’ guilt or innocence, even months after the new DNA evidence came to light.

On Feb. 6, 1976, the University of Nevada, Reno student newspaper Sagebrush ran a story, “Nevada Murders,” about historical homicides in the state. Eighteen days later, the campus saw an addition to the list. A beautiful nursing student, Michelle Mitchell, was driving past the campus on Ninth Street, taking a container of orange juice to her diabetic father at the Sterling Village Bowling Lanes at Valley Road and Denslowe Drive. Her car broke down as she was passing the agriculture college. She pushed or coasted the Volkswagen into a parking lot and called her mother from a phone booth at the college for a ride.

When Barbara Mitchell arrived to pick up her daughter, Michelle was not there. Soon Barbara, the police, and Michelle’s father Edwin—who brought a Labrador to help—were there and a search was underway. The parents and police several times passed near a garage but it was not until the residents of the property came home late that night and opened the garage that Michelle’s body was found. Her throat had been both stabbed and slit.

“Michelle had a fear of sheds and spiders,” Barbara Mitchell later told Sagebrush. “How could she have been taken into that old garage without a fight?”

The murder occurred three days after the murder of a cocktail waitress named Peggy Davis in an apartment on Stevenson Street downtown. That murder had initially gotten little attention. But when taken together with the Mitchell murder and a third, non-fatal assault on a local woman, they caused wide community concern.

Though some recent news reports have portrayed a hysterical campus, in fact, after the initial shock, UNR engaged in practical actions and went about normal business. Members of the campus community used greater care in their routines, a Juniper Hall resident assistant organized an escort service, campus police said they became more rigorous in their duties.

The victim’s parents, Barbara and Edwin Mitchell, were both local school district teachers. Barbara, like Michelle, was a UNR student, taking graduate studies. Michelle, a redhead with arresting eyes, had attended Our Lady of Snows and Manogue High School.

As a police investigation went on, sympathy naturally flowed to the family. In those first days, Barbara Mitchell said, the family “wanted for nothing. … Michelle has Muslims praying for her and trees planted for her in Israel.”

Edwin Mitchell took a class on coping with death, but he said there is a difference between dealing with a death and dealing with a murder. “She was Daddy’s little girl, the baby sister. … I still can’t grasp it.”

A few weeks after the murder, the Reno Commission on the Status of Women engaged in a discussion around the question, Why was the Reno Police Department seemingly so focused only on a male killer?

The years passed.

Three years after the murder, a woman suspect dropped out of the sky. Cathy Woods, a psychiatric patient at a Louisiana facility, confessed to the murder in a therapy session. The facility informed officials in Reno.

“Cathy Woods was not on anybody’s radar until she brought it on herself,” Washoe District Attorney Chris Hicks said last week.

In interviews with police, what Woods—who had a long history of mental problems—knew about the case was principally what had been in the newspapers. After that, she got vague. Nevertheless, she was tried and convicted. The conviction was overturned, the case tried again, another conviction entered, then that conviction overturned.

1976

During the first trial, the prosecutor produced a surprise witness who put Woods near the scene of the crime—on a concrete stairs on the slope below UNR’s Morrill Hall. After Woods was convicted in part on that testimony and went to prison, the witness was himself arrested for accosting a woman in a shopping center parking lot and sent to prison.

Even without that testimony, Woods was convicted a second time.

The first conviction was overturned because the Nevada Supreme Court believed the defense had been prevented by the trial judge’s rulings on evidence from fully airing its theory of the case—that the Mitchell murder was linked to the Peggy Davis murder and the killer was one of the figures in the Davis case.

As the years passed, to the pain of the Mitchell family was now added Cathy Woods’ distress.

“I’m writing to you to state my innocence and requesting your help,” she wrote to KOLO News anchor Tad Dunbar at one point, when she was in a mental health unit at Northern Nevada Correctional Center. “Do you know anyone in the legal community that may be able to assist me or could you direct me to Geraldo Rivera or other talk show hosts who might be interested in my case[?]”

Dunbar said he has little memory of the letter. “I may have just written her back. I don’t remember doing an interview with her.”

Woods’ confession not only damaged her own life, it interfered with the investigation. Hicks said, “Investigations stopped into other people and began into Cathy Woods.”

Woods’ second conviction was overturned after a fellow inmate filed an appeal for her seeking DNA testing. When the DNA test became known, and Woods was released pending a new trial, public sympathy that had been absent during her trials appeared. When a news article reported that Woods “downed a cheeseburger at Archie’s, a 24-hour diner near the University of Nevada, Reno, in her first meal since she was freed,” there were objections on Facebook to the term downed: “That she ’downed’ the cheeseburger as opposed to just her eating one is probably the very kind of condescending disparagement that got her convicted in the first place.”

A scheduled third retrial in July has now been canceled by Hicks, who said that—based on the DNA evidence—he will not retry the case.

“[J]ustice dictates that we move to dismiss this murder charge against Cathy Woods,” Hicks said. He acknowledged that wrongful murder convictions “upset our society, and rightfully so. … That is not justice in any way, shape or form.”

The new suspect is a male. The DNA in the garage initially remained unidentified until a new name entered the genetic system—66-year-old Rodney Halbower, a Michigan native serving an attempted murder sentence in Oregon until being extradited to San Mateo County in California to stand trial for murder in the deaths of 17-year-old Paula Baxter and 18-year-old Veronica Cascio, 18, both killed the same year as Michelle Mitchell.

In some wrongful convictions in various jurisdictions, law enforcement or prosecutors have fought against exonerations in spite of new evidence, but that was not the attitude present in the room where Woods’ exoneration was announced. “To me, it’s refreshing that we have been able to use the technology of modern times to exonerate Ms. Woods on this charge,” deputy Reno police chief Mac Venzon said.

“She no longer has to live under the threat of prosecution for this murder, and she can go about her life,” Hicks said.

Deputy public defender Maizie Pusich described Woods’ current life in California. “As strange as it sounds, she’s very lucky. She lives with her brother and sister-in-law, who have retired from jobs in which they have psychiatric training. That’s perfect place for her.” Pusich said Woods has bonded with the family’s “beautiful German Shepherd” and will soon attend her mother’s 92nd birthday celebration.

For the Mitchell family, the case begins again.

Avatar photo

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...