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Tuesday, June 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Missouri Town Rallies Around Young Man Accused Of Murder

AP

MANY RESIDENTS of the farming community of Chillicothe, Mo., are so convinced that Mark Woodworth is innocent that they have held hog roasts and bake sales to raise more than $55,000 to pay his legal fees.

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. - Roger Fraser stuffed a $1,000 check into the fishbowl and then a $20 bill - not for a farmer whose barn had burned down, not for a high-school band trip, but for a young man accused of murder.

Many in this small farming community are so convinced of 22-year-old Mark Woodworth's innocence that they've held hog roasts and bake sales to raise more than $55,000 for his legal fees.

"That kid didn't kill anybody," Fraser, a doctor, said at a roast Sunday at the 4-H fairgrounds. "He's just a real nice kid. A little shy, but he's not a killer."

That's how a number of people in this town of 8,800 see Woodworth, a reserved but generous high-school dropout who even offered to help pay the medical bills of his accuser.

He was convicted in 1995 of shooting and wounding his father's business partner and killing the partner's wife in a dispute over soybean profits in 1990.

For second-degree murder, assault and burglary charges, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

But earlier this year, the Missouri Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, saying key evidence was wrongly excluded the first time around.

Joy over the appellate ruling was quickly tempered by the weight of Woodworth's current and future legal bills. His original attorney quit the case because the family had run out of money.

Another lawyer agreed to take the case if the family raised $50,000 - about half his normal fee.

First, a bank fund established immediately after Woodworth's conviction swelled to about $15,000 from donations. The family then got a loan against Woodworth's farm tractor for $15,000.

The bake sale, later donations and Sunday's hog-roast proceeds put the fund at around $55,000.

"We want the best lawyer we can get," said Jackie Woodworth, the defendant's mother. "This is our last chance."

Woodworth, who passes the time until his next trial writing thank-you notes to people who have given $100 or more, says the donations shows many town residents are behind him.

"There's plenty more of these notes that I need to write," Woodworth said in a telephone interview from the maximum-security Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.

But the 1995 jury wasn't as generous.

The panel ruled that fingerprint and bullet-fragment evidence proved that Woodworth, then 16, fatally shot Catherine Robertson and critically injured her husband, Lyndel Robertson.

Prosecutors said the boy had argued over money with Lyndel Robertson, who ran a farming business with Woodworth's father. The two families had moved from Illinois together, and the boy worked for the company.

Prosecutors also said Woodworth knew the victims' house well enough to find a box of bullets, from which investigators later pulled Woodworth's prints.

In overturning the conviction, the appeals panel said the trial judge wrongly barred testimony from at least eight witnesses who said they heard Lyndel Robertson identify another man as the shooter as he recovered in a hospital.

Robertson says he told a doctor and others only that the other man "could have" done the shooting.

"Everybody has twisted that into meaning that I actually identified someone," he said. "They forget the victims. They victims are almost always forgotten."

Bob Smith, an area farmer, said "the community doesn't want to see this boy get the shaft."

"We know this boy, we grew up with him," he said. "We want to see justice done."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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