Confessed murderer released from prison, family appalled

Sara Vanden Berge
Lt. Don Miller solved the 1987 cold case murder of Susan Woods. He is pictured with a box of evidence from the case inside the Stephenville Police Department.

A man who confessed to the brutal slaying of a Stephenville woman in 1987 has been released from prison after serving 11 years.

Joseph Scott Hatley, 52, reportedly walked out of the Huntsville prison Wednesday morning and headed to a halfway house in Midland where he will spend the next several months.

Hatley was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007 after confessing to the murder of Susan Jeanette Woods one week before his trial was set to begin.

Former district attorney John Terrill, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, said at the time the victim’s family took “great comfort” in the sentencing.

But that’s not the sentiment of Hatley’s family and others close to the case following his release.

Hatley’s son, Nicholas Hatley, sent the E-T an email one day before his father would be set free.

In his email, Nicholas Hatley wrote that he is “unsure” why his father is getting another chance, and that the community should be made aware of his release.

Lt. Don Miller with the Stephenville Police Department is credited with solving the cold case that put Hatley behind bars in 2007.

He said Wednesday that he is disappointed, but not surprised Hatley was released.

“It’s not uncommon for long prison sentences to be greatly reduced due to prison overcrowding,” Miller said.


Woods’ father discovered his daughter’s body on July 28, 1987, partly submerged in a bathtub inside her Stephenville home. Investigators working the case determined she had been dead for two to three days. According to the medical examiner, Woods died of asphyxiation due to either strangulation or drowning.

Cindy Hayes was Woods’ best friend. She is also Hatley’s first cousin.

“Susan was the sweetest person God ever breathed life into,” Hayes said. “We met in band during high school and both played the clarinet.”

The two also shared the same birthday - April 6 - and their friendship lasted long after high school despite their two-year age difference.

Hayes said Woods and Hatley were not friends, but mere acquaintances.

“(Hatley) was like my brother, we were close growing up,” Hayes said. “He was quiet and shy and never had any friends when he was young, but he wasn’t a mean kid.”

Despite an intense investigation by detectives originally assigned to the case, the mystery of who killed Woods, who was 30 at the time of her death, remained unsolved until 20 years later when Miller reopened the cold case files.

After re-examining much of the evidence, Miller became convinced that new DNA technology could solve the murder. He took several fingerprints lifted from the crime scene to the Texas Department of Public Safety Lab in Austin and ran them through the automated fingertip identification system. They were a perfect match to Hatley’s.

DNA from discarded cigarette butts found at the crime scene also linked Hatley to the murder.

The findings were a shock to Miller, who said Hatley was never a suspect.

“I always knew the case was solvable,” Miller said. “But Hatley was never on our radar.”

Hatley, who was 21 when the murder took place, went on to marry and have a family. He was in jail in Williamson County facing charges of aggravated sexual assault in an unrelated case when he was charged with Woods’ murder.

Miller said Hatley’s release from prison brings back lots of emotions. He is grateful to his former chief Roy Halsell who supported his quest to find Woods’ killer, but there is regret Hatley wasn’t arrested sooner.


About a year after Woods’ murder, a 16-year-old Erath County girl accused Hatley of rape and attempted murder. The grand jury declined to indict him.

After Hatley was linked to Woods’ murder two decades later, Miller found that victim, who by then had moved out of Erath County, and interviewed her.

“She was still scared and in hiding,” Miller recalled. “Hatley allegedly sodomized her and nearly killed her at a roadside park on Highway 281.”

Hayes said she was shocked to learn that her cousin was responsible for her best friend’s murder.

“It was mind-numbing,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Today, Hayes fears there may be additional victims out there.

“I think he is a monster,” Hayes said. “The public needs to be aware that he is out of prison.”