Lawyers for exonerated woman outraged she has to travel for deposition in compensation case

Lawyers representing a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murder say they are outraged at state attorneys for insisting their client appear in person for a deposition in a compensation case filed last year.

Cathy Woods, also known as Anita Carter, filed a complaint in December against the state of Nevada seeking $3.6 million in compensation for serving 35 years in prison.

Her complaint follows a previous lawsuit she filed in 2016 against Washoe County, which has since been settled.

Woods, now 70, was initially imprisoned for the 1976 murder of 19-year-old Reno college student Michelle Mitchell. She was exonerated in September 2014 after investigators found DNA evidence on a cigarette butt left at the scene. The DNA matched that of Rodney L. Halbower, who is now serving a life term for killing two teenagers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After she was released from prison, Woods moved to an assisted living facility in Washington State.

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According to the National Registry of Exonerations database, Woods is one of the longest-serving women to be wrongfully convicted and then exonerated in U.S. history.

Her recent complaint follows the 2019 passing of Assembly Bill 267, a state law that provides compensation to people wrongfully convicted of a crime.

The state recently filed a brief insisting that Woods travel to Seattle to testify at a two-hour deposition in order to receive compensation.

Initially, state attorneys wanted her to travel to Carson City, but because of her age, physical health and mental illness, they settled on having her appear in court in Seattle, according to Woods’ attorney Elizabeth Wang.

Wang — of Loevy & Loevy, a civil rights law firm based in Illinois, Colorado and Massachusetts — argued Woods is in no condition to travel, especially now amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She can just as easily testify via video conference as everybody else in America has been doing since the COVID pandemic hit the United States,” Wang told the RGJ in a phone interview on Thursday.

“She should not have to be deposed in person,” she said. “She should not have to travel on an airplane and stay at a hotel just to sit for a deposition that’s only going to take an hour or two.

“It would take days out of her life and expose her to risks to her health.”

Woods’ attorneys argued she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which puts her at higher risk of contracting the virus. If she gets the virus, then she’s more likely to die from the disease, Wang said.

She argued Woods, who lives on a small island off the coast of Washington, would have to take a three-and-a-half-hour ferry and endure a lengthy drive to Seattle.

Her counsel, one of whom lives in Nevada, would also have to travel on an airplane and through airports — described as “vectors of disease” in the court documents — to get to Seattle.

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They would then need to drive her there and back, violating any social distancing guidelines.

Woods would also have to leave the day before the deposition and stay the evening in a hotel, further exposing her to the virus.

“As you know, Washington state was an early epicenter of COVID-19, and still continues to have new cases of the disease,” Woods’ physician, Dr. William Gunderson, said in a letter that was attached to the recent court filings.

“She has been able to avoid exposure to COVID-19 by staying in the assisted living facility which is on quarantine.”

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Wang said Woods, who also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, would need to be quarantined in her room for at least 14 days if she were to leave and return to the facility.

In the court documents, her attorneys argued isolation “would pose an undue hardship on her” because of her mental state.

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“Ms. Woods has been traumatized by her 35 years of being wrongfully imprisoned,” Wang said. “The state of Nevada is putting her at risk for no reason whatsoever.”

Woods has a trial set in September in her compensation case. Her attorneys are currently awaiting a response from the judge on their request for a video deposition.

Meanwhile, Woods’ initial lawsuit she filed in 2016 is still pending in federal court.

Marcella Corona is a breaking news reporter who covers crime and justice in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.