close
close

Colorado District Attorneys’ Handling of CBI Lab Scandal Fuels Calls for Government Action

Yvonne “Missy” Woods, a forensic scientist with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, testified in a Boulder courtroom on July 23, 2009, during the trial of Kevin Elmarr, who was accused of killing his ex-wife, Carol Murphy, in 1987. Elmarr was convicted in the 2009 trial, but the verdict was later overturned because jurors were not allowed to hear evidence from other suspects. He was convicted again after a second trial in 2015. (Marty Caivano, Daily Camera)

Debra Aranda feared someone had died when she was unexpectedly ripped from her daily routine in a Pueblo prison a few weeks ago.

But when the 67-year-old reached the room she had been called to, a prison staff member handed her a thick manila envelope.

“I just thought, ‘What in the world?'” Aranda said.

The envelope was a package from the Weld County District Attorney’s Office informing Aranda that her criminal conviction may have been influenced by the misconduct of Colorado Bureau of Investigation scientist Yvonne “Missy” Woods, who had tampered with and deleted DNA test data in hundreds of cases over the years, calling into question all of her forensic work – revelations that came to light publicly in late 2023.

Aranda was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2022 for attempted murder in connection with a domestic violence stabbing, and Woods was a certified witness in her case.

With the package in hand, Aranda began making calls. To her former public defender. To the district attorney’s office. To legal aid centers. To elected officials.

None of them helped her.

“It’s so frustrating,” Aranda said in a phone call from La Vista Correctional Facility. “… I can’t do anything. If I was out there, I wouldn’t stop. I would search Google everywhere, all over the internet, everywhere until I got answers. But from here, my hands are just tied. Or in other words, handcuffed.”

Some district attorneys’ offices in Colorado have begun proactively notifying former defendants that the legal proceedings against them may have been influenced by Woods’ unreliable forensic work, The Denver Post found. But the process by which convicted felons must respond to those notifications is complicated, putting the onus on former defendants to either hire lawyers or go through complicated legal processes themselves, experts told The Post.

“Notification doesn’t make much sense if a person in prison has no idea what to do next,” said Anne-Marie Moyes, director of the Korey Wise Innocence Project at the University of Colorado.

She and others called for Colorado to set up a special, statewide process – independent of the CBI – to address the hundreds of people whose convictions could be challenged because of Woods’s poor work.

“This mess was created by the state and the state must participate in ensuring that the cleanup process is fair to the defendants,” said James Karbach, spokesman for the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has so far found problems in more than 650 of Woods’ cases between 2008 and 2023 and has not completed a review of her work between 1994 and 2008. Lawmakers gave Colorado prosecutors $4.4 million this year to investigate allegations of wrongful convictions based on their work, but have not provided any money for the public defender’s office, which had requested $5 million in January.

The defense community is still working to understand the full extent of the problem, says Lynn Noesner, chief of the post-conviction division of the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, which represents indigent defendants when the public defender’s office cannot raise the $5 million in funding it denied but would have liked to.

“This problem with Missy Woods, this massive, terrible problem, from the little information we’ve been able to get from the CBI and the prosecutors so far, it seems to be not just limited to Missy Woods, but it extends to the entire CBI,” she said. “It’s terrible to think that defendants are sitting in prison and being convicted based on lies. We’re not even talking about junk science here. We’re talking about made-up science. This is the reality here. This is a huge problem.”

The notification process has been patchy so far: Some prosecutors have sent notifications, others have not, the Post noted.

Prosecutors in Weld, Jefferson, Gilpin, Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties have begun notifying defendants or attorneys in cases involving Woods. The Denver district attorney’s office has not done so. In Boulder, prosecutors have notified defendants in open cases about Woods’ misconduct but not yet convicted individuals, a spokeswoman said.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke sent letters to about 265 people in March, choosing to notify all former defendants for whom Woods was certified as a witness – meaning she was listed as a possible witness before trial – rather than just defendants whose cases were flagged for misconduct by the CBI.

Rourke estimates that, thanks to Woods’ work, only about 15 of these 265 cases actually identified problems.

“My philosophy was this: I didn’t want the defendants’ lawyers or the courts to see me as an obstructionist,” he said. “I wanted to get ahead of the issue and do the right thing by sharing this information.”

How former defendants can use that information varies in the complex world of post-conviction remedies, experts said. Under one potential legal avenue – laid out in Rule 35c of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure – former defendants often have to write a legal motion themselves to ask a judge to appoint a pro bono attorney for their case.

The judge weighs the claims and can either hire a lawyer to handle the case for free or dismiss the case without further action. It is often difficult for those affected to draft a petition that meets this first legal standard, said Moyes of the Innocence Project.

“Under current post-conviction rules in Colorado, a person must fend for themselves until they can convince a judge to appoint an attorney,” she said. “Incarcerated individuals who do not even have the right to receive a copy of their trial transcript are ill-equipped to provide the evidence needed to obtain an attorney. In fact, any Colorado resident would have difficulty providing the evidence needed on their own.”

The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office sent 67 notices, choosing not to send letters in all 450 cases in which Woods was named as a witness, but only to people in cases where the CBI determined their work had an impact on those cases, office spokesman Eric Ross said.

Inmates who receive letters about Woods should contact their local public defender’s office, said Karbach of the state’s public defender’s office, but he cautioned that public defenders cannot always handle post-sentencing work, especially if they represented the client in the original case.

“Due to the complexity of conflict of interest rules, complicated post-conviction procedures, inconsistent practices by district attorneys in notifying clients, and the CBI’s lack of transparency, responding to requests for assistance is complicated and we are not always able to provide advice as attorneys,” he said.

Each defendant needs legal advice tailored to his or her circumstances and case and should try to contact a lawyer by either hiring one or taking advantage of free legal advice, he added.

“This is something that policymakers in our state need to address so that people get fair representation,” he said.

Sign up to receive daily crime news straight to your inbox.