Submitted: November 14, 2017
from United States District Court for the Western District of
Missouri - St. Joseph
COLLOTON and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges, and HOLMES,  District
GRUENDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Woodworth appeals the district court's adverse grant of
summary judgment in this civil-rights action, in which he
alleges that prosecutor Kenneth Hulshof and Judge Kenneth
Lewis conspired to deprive him of his constitutional rights
during criminal proceedings related to a 1990 homicide. His
resulting convictions were overturned largely due to
Hulshof's and Judge Lewis's handling of the case.
Because both officials are entitled to absolute immunity, we
events giving rise to this case were detailed extensively
during Woodworth's habeas proceedings before the Missouri
Supreme Court. See State ex rel Woodworth v. Denney,
396 S.W.3d 330 (Mo. banc 2013). As relevant here,
November 1990, two of Woodworth's neighbors were shot
while sleeping at their home in rural Livingston County,
Missouri. Lyndel Robertson survived despite sustaining
multiple gunshot wounds to the face, but his wife Catherine
died from her injuries. Although Lyndel did not have a clear
recollection of the attack, he initially accused Brandon
Thomure, his daughter's ex-boyfriend, and insisted that
charges be brought against him. At some point, however,
Lyndel abandoned this theory, and the investigation stalled
due to the absence of credible evidence.
months passed, Lyndel became increasingly frustrated with the
lack of progress in identifying the assailant. Thus, in June
1991, he hired private investigator Terry Deister to look
into the matter. At the time, Deister was also assisting
Lyndel with an unrelated civil lawsuit involving
Woodworth's father. Deister almost immediately focused
his attention on Woodworth, who was sixteen at the time of
the shootings. From there, Deister went on to play an
outsized role in the official investigation, gaining access
to the sheriff's investigatory files and convincing the
chief deputy to treat Woodworth as the prime suspect.
Eventually, with Deister spurring the investigation, law
enforcement discovered forensic evidence that supported his
theory of Woodworth's guilt.
presented these findings to Livingston County Prosecuting
Attorney Doug Roberts, who was not convinced that there was
sufficient evidence to bring charges against Woodworth. This
reluctance prompted Lyndel to send a letter to Judge Lewis
requesting that Roberts "be released of his duty"
as to the matter. Judge Lewis provided a copy of this letter
to Roberts, who vehemently objected to the characterization
that he had a "lack of enthusiasm" for the case. He
also suggested that Lyndel was unreliable given that he
originally accused Thomure. Nevertheless, in a letter dated
October 5, 1993, Roberts disqualified himself and asked that
Judge Lewis appoint the Missouri Attorney General's
Office ("AGO") to handle the matter.
days later, Judge Lewis appointed the AGO as special
prosecutor and convened a grand jury. He also sent a letter
to then-Assistant Attorney General Hulshof detailing these
developments. Enclosed with the letter was the appointment
order, as well as a copy of Lyndel's letter requesting
Roberts's removal and Roberts's response
(collectively, the "Lewis Letters"). As revealed at
subsequent proceedings, these documents contained both
impeachment and exculpatory evidence relevant to
Woodworth's defense. For example, Judge Lewis admitted
that it was Lyndel's request that prompted him to convene
the grand jury, casting doubt on the impartiality of the
process. The Roberts letter also made clear that Lyndel had
originally accused Thomure, undermining his credibility as a
witness against Woodworth.
before receiving the Lewis Letters, Hulshof was aware of the
investigation, as Judge Lewis had called him on at least one
previous occasion to discuss the matter and to inquire about
the AGO's process for selecting special prosecutors.
During these discussions, Judge Lewis also indicated his
preference that Hulshof handle the matter due to his
familiarity with Livingston County. However, an AGO
supervisor made the final decision to assign Hulshof to the
his appointment, Hulshof familiarized himself with the case
by reviewing the investigatory file and speaking with several
witnesses. He immediately noticed some "pretty
unusual" circumstances surrounding the investigation,
including the involvement of a private investigator.
Notwithstanding these irregularities, Hulshof presented
evidence to the grand jury against only Woodworth, who was
ultimately indicted on a variety of charges. Judge Lewis
thereafter presided over the hearing at which Woodworth was
certified to stand trial as an adult.
1995, a jury convicted Woodworth of all charges, which
included second-degree murder, first-degree assault,
first-degree burglary, and two counts of armed criminal
action. The Missouri Court of Appeals later reversed these
convictions because the trial court excluded evidence
implicating Thomure as an alternative suspect. See State
v. Woodworth, 941 S.W.2d 679, 700 (Mo.Ct.App. 1997).
However, Woodworth was convicted of the same crimes at a
second trial. Judge Lewis was not involved in either of these
trials, and Hulshof's involvement ended after he secured
a conviction at the first trial.
later, Woodworth learned of the existence of the Lewis
Letters from a reporter, and on the basis of this new
evidence, he filed a habeas petition with the Supreme Court
of Missouri. See Denney, 396 S.W.3d at 336. That
tribunal appointed a special master to take evidence and make
preliminary findings. After spending more than a year on the
case, the special master "strongly recommend[ed]"
vacating Woodworth's conviction, concluding that the
State had committed at least two Brady violations by
failing to disclose the Lewis Letters and evidence that
implicated Thomure. Id. The special master's
report also highlighted other irregularities with the
investigation and initial prosecution, including conflicts of
interest involving Judge Lewis's personal
attorney and Woodworth's original defense
counsel. The court adopted the special master's
findings in full and vacated Woodworth's ...