Mark Woodworth grew up in the fields just outside Chillicothe. By the time he could walk, neighbors found the boy wandering between the cornstalks, chasing his father with the family dog in tow.
Woodworth, now 39, still pulls long hours harvesting these acres. His hair and goatee are salted with gray, his eyes heavy and tired. He has the same boyish grin that he flashed in a high school yearbook photo 23 years ago.
At dusk, Woodworth retires to his parents' basement; he still sleeps in his childhood bedroom.
Woodworth is at the root of a deep rift that has spanned a generation in this central Missouri farming town. The split opinions of him are summarized on a pair of Facebook pages.
"Peace for Cathy Robertson" gives the prosecution's account of November 13, 1990: Woodworth swiped his father's loaded revolver from his parents' bedroom. Suspecting that his father would notice any missing bullets, Woodworth skulked across Missouri Highway 190 to his neighbor's machine shed and stole six rounds from a box of Remington bullets. Then Woodworth crept through his neighbor's house, found the master bedroom, flipped on the lights and shot Cathy Robertson twice, killing the 41-year-old mother of five as she slept. Then Woodworth circled around and fired four rounds into Robertson's husband before slipping back into the night.
"The Mark Woodworth Innocence Project" provides an alternate history, a saga that has emerged from years of legal wrangling: Law enforcement failed to fully investigate a prime suspect and ignored critical witnesses, instead zeroing in on a shy neighbor boy. A private detective spearheaded an investigation that wrongfully locked Woodworth in prison for 17 years.
Many who drive past Chillicothe's elegant, century-old courthouse at the center of this town warily eye the hall of justice and wonder how they could ever again trust what happens here. But the people of this community of about 9,400 remain divided on how the criminal-justice system failed. Either the neighbor boy spent 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit or the system set a killer free.
Over the past two decades, the state has twice tried and convicted Woodworth of murder. Those convictions have been overturned, freeing Woodworth from prison, most recently in February 2013.
The history of State v. Woodworth is so rife with error, according to Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gary Oxenhandler (whom the Missouri Supreme Court appointed to review the case in 2011), that Woodworth's murder conviction constituted "a manifest injustice." In his 2012 report, Oxenhandler wrote that the case "could be the lyrics to a country-and-western song."
Despite that history, the state is attempting to try Woodworth for a third time.
In the mid-1970s, Claude Woodworth and high school friend Lyndel Robertson settled on the outskirts of Chillicothe in rural Livingston County. They built humble, one-story farmhouses on opposite sides of two-lane Highway 190.
Lyndel and Cathy Robertson would have five children, Claude and Jackie Woodworth seven. The families grew together. They baby-sat each other's kids, had mutual friends and barbecued on weekends.
Woodworth and Robertson formed a business partnership with about 600 acres that grew to thousands. A couple of poor harvests forced them to file for bankruptcy in the 1980s, but they weathered the slump. By 1990, the business had a net worth of more than $1 million.
A quiet boy who hated school, Mark Woodworth took easily to farming. When he was a child, his parents gave him a small plot of land near the house, where he gardened vegetables, corn and soy. Woodworth turned it into a testing ground for seed, telling his dad which varieties grew best and which ones to ditch.