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Laurie Houts killing: Judge dismisses bid for third murder trial on double-jeopardy grounds

Laurie Houts killing: Judge dismisses bid for third murder trial on double-jeopardy grounds

SAN JOSE — A judge has disqualified a third attempt to prosecute John Kevin Woodward for the strangling of Laurie Houts in Mountain View three decades ago, after ruling that two prior mistrials and a case dismissal from the 1990s mean another murder trial would violate Woodward’s constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – JULY 28: John Kevin Woodward, left, stands next to his attorney Dan Barton as he appears in court at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Woodward, who had since relocated to the Netherlands, was charged in July 2022 after authorities — claiming newly discovered DNA evidence on the murder weapon — arrested him as he arrived in New York City for a vacation. He has been confined to home detention at a Modesto residence for most of the past year.

In a written opinion released Wednesday, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Shella Deen ruled that the same court’s 1996 dismissal of a murder charge against Woodward was functionally an acquittal.

“Defendant may not be retried, based on double jeopardy grounds,” Deen wrote. “The case is ordered dismissed.”

That affirmed the argument that Woodward’s attorney Dan Barton made to Deen during an Aug. 10 court hearing, in which he said the law was “clear and unambiguous” about his client’s Fifth Amendment rights.

“It’s not all that close of a call. That’s what the law is,” Barton said in a phone interview. “He’s been under the court’s supervision in house arrest for the better part of the year. Obviously that takes a toll, but he’s very grateful for Judge Deen making a ruling based on the facts and the law, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, whose office argued the 1996 case dismissal left open the opportunity for retrial if new evidence emerged, said his office plans to appeal.

“We are appealing the judge’s decision because we want the defendant held accountable for murder,” Rosen said in a statement.

Laurie Houts after a softball game the night before Houts died. (Photo: special to the Bay Area News Group) 

Houts’ family and friends, who have regularly shown up to court hearings en masse, said they are “outraged” by the dismissal and called it “heartbreaking.”

“This decision to dismiss the case on a legal technicality, which comes just before the 31st anniversary of her murder, represents yet another failure to deliver the justice that Laurie deserves,” a family statement reads. “We feel as if she died all over again.”

Deen issued a five-day stay — in essence a delay — before her decision becomes final, which allows the DA’s office a chance to petition a higher court, likely the Sixth District Court of Appeal, to reverse the ruling and keep it from going into effect while the appellate court reviews the case.

The appellate court could decline to review or swiftly side with Deen, at which point Woodward’s home detention would be rescinded and he would be free. If the court takes up the case and also grants its own stay of the ruling, Woodward’s home detention would remain in effect pending the result of its review. A reversal from the appeals court would put the case on the path to retrial, whereas an affirmation would free him.

Another possible short-term outcome would be for the appellate court to agree to review the ruling but still allow it to go into effect, meaning Woodward would be freed. In this scenario, if an appellate review resulted in a reversal, a new arrest warrant, and possible extradition, might be necessary to bring him to trial. And even after an appellate decision is made, the losing side could petition the state Supreme Court for a review.

Houts, 25, was killed on Sept. 5, 1992, while she drove home from her job at Adobe Systems in Mountain View. Investigators discovered signs of a struggle in her car, and her pocketbook was found unopened nearby.

Two prosecutions of Woodward in 1995 and 1996 resulted in hung juries favoring acquittal by margins of 8-4 and 7-5 respectively. The first trial was notorious for prosecutors’ assertion that Woodward, who is gay, was jealous of Houts’ relationship with Woodward’s male roommate. The tactic was criticized as homophobic, and Judge Lawrence Terry, who presided over the second trial, barred prosecutors from arguing that specific motive, though a more general jealousy motive was still proffered.

A key argument in the current case centered on whether Terry’s 1996 dismissal order constituted an acquittal that would bar further prosecution of Woodward for Houts’ death. Prosecutors pointed to language indicating that Terry dismissed the case “in furtherance of justice,” which they asserted left an opening for a future charge, and also argued that “contemporaneous evidence,” including a Mercury News article from the time, suggests Terry agreed with their stance.

But Barton, and ultimately Deen, emphasized language in Terry’s dismissal order that mentioned that the case being “dismissed in the furtherance of justice” was predicated solely on “insufficiency of the evidence,” and Deen ruled that Terry’s order equated to an acquittal.

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Woodward was arrested on the latest charge in July 2022 after he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York from the Netherlands. His current connection to the United States is primarily through ReadyTech, an online training company with U.S. headquarters in Oakland, and which Woodward ran as CEO before his arrest.

Days later, Mountain View police and the district attorney’s office announced that a refreshed analysis of the murder weapon — a rope — uncovered DNA evidence linking Woodward to Houts’ slaying. They also described finding more of Woodward’s fingerprints on Houts’ car. After he was charged, a judge later cited his two mistrials and past adherence to bail conditions in granting him $350,000 bail and home detention with close monitoring.

Houts’ supporters said they “implore the legal system” to make Woodward stand trial. The judge’s stay expires Tuesday.

“We are angry,” the statement reads. “We will not rest until Laurie Houts’ legacy is honored through a fair and just resolution to her case.”