Nevada woman exonerated after serving 35 years for murder gets $3M award
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A woman who was released from a Nevada prison in 2015 — after being locked up for more than three decades for a murder she didn't commit – was awarded $3 million in a partial settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit, her lawyer said Wednesday.
Cathy Woods, 68, was still seeking damages from the city of Reno and former police investigators she accused of coercing a 1979 confession from her while she was a patient in a Louisiana mental hospital.
Woods spent 35 years in prison for the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell, a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Reno. DNA evidence that had been collected from a cigarette butt found at the crime scene ultimately exonerated her. She's been living in Washington state since then.
County commissioners in Nevada have agreed to a $3 million settlement with Woods, seen here in 2014, who spent 35 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit before she was exonerated by DNA evidence tied to a crime-scene cigarette butt. (Andy Barron/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)
"Although no amount of money will compensate Ms. Woods for what she endured, this will go at least some way toward providing care for her,” said her lawyer, Elizabeth Wang.
Wang said that Woods was psychotic, and that detectives never should have interrogated her. Woods was bartending when Mitchell was killed and later moved to Louisiana. Her mother committed her to a psychiatric hospital, where Woods told a staff member about the murder.
Nevada’s Supreme Court overturned her 1980 conviction, but she was convicted again in 1984 in a second trial.
A judge vacated the conviction in 2014 after DNA testing linked Oregon prison inmate Rodney Halbower to the crime. He's since been convicted of two murders in the San Francisco area that occurred during the same time period as the Mitchell killing.
Woods was the longest-serving women to be wrongfully convicted and then exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The Washoe County Commission had voted 4-0 on Tuesday to pay $3 million to settle a portion of her federal lawsuit. Former District Attorney Cal Dunlap was named as a defendant in the suit.
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"The conviction and subsequent incarceration of Woods for murder is a tragic situation that Washoe County hopes is never repeated,” the county said in a statement. “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 Associated Press contributed to this report.
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