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Judge dismisses 1990s Mountain View murder case on a legal technicality

District attorney’s office appeals decision while defendant remains on house arrest.
Laurie Houts. Courtesy Mountain View Police Department.

On Tuesday morning, a packed courtroom listened intently as Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Shella Deen granted a stay order to keep John Kevin Woodward a tech CEO who has been charged three different times with the murder of Laurie Houts under house arrest with an ankle monitor.

Last week, Deen dismissed the murder charges against Woodward, stating that he could not be tried again on grounds of double jeopardy, according to the order.

The case now is with the court of appeals as prosecutors seek to overturn the ruling. The stay was put in place to keep Woodward from leaving the country and returning to the Netherlands, where he resided before his arrest last year.

Family and friends of Laurie Houts stand outside the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice on Aug. 29, 2023. . Photo by Emily Margaretten.

Houts, a 25-year-old computer science engineer, was strangled to death in her car in Mountain View in 1992. Woodward was tried twice for the murder in the mid-1990s, and both times the case was declared a mistrial after the jury deadlocked on the verdict.

Houts family and friends thought this time would be different. The Santa Clara County District Attorneys Office reopened the case last year, after advancements in forensic technology made it possible to link Woodwards DNA to the rope that was used to strangle Houts.

But a legal technicality has derailed the possibility of another trial, much to the disbelief and anger of Houts sister, Cindy Ievers. When Woodward was tried for the murder a second time in 1996, the judge dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence, Ievers said.

He (the judge) looked right at us and said, This doesn't mean you cant bring the case ever again. It just means you cant bring us with the evidence you currently have. You need more evidence, Ievers said.

The judge did not say that Woodward was acquitted, Ievers added. But based on an interpretation of another legal case (Mannes v. Gillespie), Deen ruled that insufficient evidence amounts to an acquittal and a retrial would be grounds for double jeopardy.

The ruling has repercussions for all cold cases. Ievers said any case with a hung jury would not be allowed to bring future evidence, including DNA evidence, to a trial. And that just doesn't seem right, Ievers said. I don't think insufficient evidence at the time, from way back, should be grounds for an acquittal.

After the hearing, supporters of Houts, wearing matching t-shirts in a show of solidarity, congregated outside the courthouse steps to read a public statement about the judges ruling.

We wish we could say we were grateful for this outcome, but the reality is this is the least the court can do for us, said Marilyn Riess, a friend of Houts. Weve had so many setbacks and legal issues over the last 31 years, and it has been very, very difficult. Weve been on a roller coaster for that long But were grateful for the stay that she issued. Now the case goes on to the court of appeals, and we hang our hopes that justice will be sooner than later, she said.

The judge clarified that the stay remains in place until the state's 6th District Court of Appeal reviews the evidence, Deputy District Attorney Barbara Cathcart said in a debriefing session with Houts family and friends. Today couldnt have gone any better, she added.

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