Laurie Houts killing: Court delays murder dismissal pending appellate decision

Laurie Houts killing: Court delays murder dismissal pending appellate decision

SAN JOSE — The dismissal of a murder charge against a man who beat two trials in the 1990s over the strangling of Laurie Houts in Mountain View is on hold, a judge ruled Tuesday.

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

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Shella Deen  also preserved home detention and $350,000 bail for John Kevin Woodward to ensure he cannot leave the country — he resided in the Netherlands when he was arrested last year — in case the Sixth District Court of Appeal overturns her dismissal ruling and sends the case to trial.

When Deen issued her Aug. 22 order dismissing a murder charge for Woodward, she allowed whatever side she ruled against to petition the appellate court for a review within five days.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed a writ with the appellate court Monday, a day before the deadline, and Deputy District Attorney Alexandra Gadeberg asked in court Tuesday for a two-week extension of Deen’s stay order to give the appellate court enough time to review the arguments underpinning the charge dismissal.

Woodward’s attorney, Dan Barton, asked for his client’s home detention — currently at a Modesto residence — to be rescinded given that the court had dropped the murder charge. Gadeberg objected by asserting the “real possibility” of the appellate court siding with the prosecution.

“The People believe the defendant will be facing charges of murder, and the defendant will leave the country if that happens,” she said.

Barton responded to that stance by stating matter-of-factly: “We don’t lock up people who are not facing criminal charges.”

In her dismissal order last week, Deen ruled that two prior mistrials and a case dismissal from the 1990s mean another murder trial would violate Woodward’s constitutional protections against double jeopardy. Woodward was arrested last year as he arrived in New York City for a vacation and charged with Houts’ killing based on a new DNA analysis of a piece of rope that investigators determined was the murder weapon.

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.

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Separate 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.

Deen’s dismissal of the newest murder charge revolved around an analysis of Terry’s own dismissal of the case after the 1996 mistrial, in which he wrote that the charges be “dismissed in the furtherance of justice for insufficiency of the evidence,” language that Barton said made the order an acquittal that barred additional prosecution of Woodward for Houts’ killing.

The district attorney’s office argued that the technical language of Terry’s order should have been contextualized with remarks he made in the same court document, including, “There is simply a lack of evidence on which to convict the defendant. Without new evidence, the result of this case will be the same at each successive trial.”

Prosecutors contend that combined with contemporary accounts from that period, Terry’s “insufficiency” statement referred strictly to the case as it stood post-mistrial, and left open the possibility of future prosecution based on new evidence. Deen deemed much of this argument irrelevant to the double-jeopardy question, and found that Terry’s order was functionally an acquittal.