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Woodworth v. Hulshof

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 6, 2018

Mark Eugene Woodworth Plaintiff- Appellant
Kenneth Hulshof Defendant-Appellee Lyndel Robertson; Rochelle Koehly; Brandon Patrick Hagan Defendants William S. Lewis, in his capacity as Personal Representative o f the Estate of Kenneth Lewis Defendant-Appellee Gary Calvert; Terry L. Deister; R. Brent Elliott; Rachel Smith; John Williams; David Miller; Livingston County; Livingston County Sheriffs Department; City of Chillicothe, Missouri; City of Chillicothe, Police Department; Jenny Smith; Bruce Clemonds Defendants

          Submitted: November 14, 2017

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - St. Joseph

          Before COLLOTON and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges, and HOLMES, [1] District Judge.


         Mark Woodworth appeals the district court's[2] 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 affirm.


         The 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, [3] in 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.

         As the 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.

         Lyndel 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.

         Two 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.

         Even 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 investigation.

         After 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.

         In 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.

         Years 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[4] and Woodworth's original defense counsel.[5] The court adopted the special master's findings in full and vacated Woodworth's ...

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