Updated: Suspect in Michael Morton Case Arrested

Mark Norwood mug shot from arrest Nov. 9, 2011
Mark Norwood mug shot from arrest Nov. 9, 2011

Update: 6:00 p.m.

GEORGETOWN — Mark Alan Norwood, a 57-year-old Bastrop resident, was arrested today and charged with the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. Michael Morton, her husband, was exonerated of her murder last month after spending nearly 25 years in prison, when DNA connected Norwood to the Morton murder and to the murder of another Austin woman, Debra Masters Baker.

Williamson County Sheriffs Office Sgt. John Foster said Norwood was arrested at his Bastrop home and that police had known his whereabouts since his DNA was identified in August. He is being held on a capital murder charge; his bond is set at $750,000.

"In this case, we have enough to believe that Mr. Norwood committed this murder," Foster said during a press conference in front of the Williamson County Jail.

Norwood's DNA was also found on pubic hair at the scene of Baker’s murder in 1988. Both women were beaten to death in their beds in the early morning hours. The two lived just about 12 miles apart, and Norwood, who worked as a carpet layer, lived just blocks away from Baker.

 

In a statement, the Austin Police Department said Norwood is a suspect in that case, and that the investigation of Baker's murder continues under the Travis County District Attorney's office.

Norwood has a long criminal history, including 2007 charges in California for drug possession and resisting arrest. He was arrested last year in Bastrop County for assault causing bodily injury. And in 1987, Norwood was charged with a string of Austin burglaries near his home. According to court records, Norwood was arrested after he held a garage sale at his own home, offering the pilfered items for sale. Neighbors recognized their belongings and called police. Court documents also show that Norwood was arrested in Tennessee and charged with attempting to commit a felony.

Norwood's DNA was identified in August when attorneys for Michael Morton won a court order forcing the Williamson County District Attorneys office to allow testing on the blue bandana found near the scene of Christine Morton's murder.

Morton was convicted of his wife's murder in 1987, and he was exonerated last month when DNA testing revealed Norwood's DNA mixed with Christine Morton's blood on the bandana.

Christine Morton was found brutally beaten to death in her Williamson County home north of Austin on August 13, 1986. Police focused on Morton as the primary suspect, and the jury gave him a life sentence after prosecutors said that he beat his wife to death because she refused to have sex with him the night before, which was his birthday. 

Morton insisted he was innocent, and that an intruder must have murdered his wife after he left for work early in the morning.  

Houston lawyer John Raley and lawyers for the New York-based Innocence Project sought DNA testing on the bandana for six years. After a court ordered the testing last year, it excluded Morton. The DNA was entered into a national database and it matched DNA for Norwood that was gathered during his California arrest.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley agreed to release Morton from prison based on the DNA testing, and officials began investigating Norwood. Travis County officials also renewed their long-cold investigation of the Baker murder.

 

Raley said he immediately called Morton to inform him of the arrest on Wednesday. "He is very relieved that the man whose DNA was found on the bandana has been arrested,” Raley said.

Caitlin Baker, Debra Masters Baker's daughter, said she learned of the arrest Wednesday morning. Caitlin Baker and Jesse Baker have been pressing for years to find their mother's killer. Austin police initially focused on their father, Phillip Baker, but he was ruled out as a suspect, and police never had any other solid leads.

Her mother was killed just days before Caitlin Baker’s fourth birthday. Jesse Baker was 7. Caitlin Baker said she was speechless when police told her about the arrest. "It was exciting," she said in a phone interview. "My reaction was, 'Really? No shit. That’s pretty cool.'"

Sgt. Foster said Williamson County detectives interviewed Norwood in August and he provided "no innocent explanation" for why his DNA would have been found on the bandana with Christine Morton's blood. Asked why it took nearly three months to arrest Norwood after he was identified, Foster explained, "DNA testing takes a certain amount of time to do that. Quite honestly, with the time that has gone by, we didn't feel very comfortable with someone that is a suspected murderer being out in the public."

Foster emphasized that none of the current detectives in that office were involved in the original investigation of the Morton murder, which led to Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction.

Morton’s lawyers and the State Bar of Texas are now investigating how he was wrongfully convicted and whether prosecutors intentionally withheld information that indicated he was innocent.

Defense lawyers recently discovered that investigators had clues at the time of Morton’s murders that pointed to another suspect. Neighbors reported seeing a suspicious van repeatedly parked near the Mortons’ home. The sheriffs department also was aware that Christine Morton’s credit card was used after her death and that her signature was forged to cash a check she had been given as a birthday gift for the couple’s young son.

Perhaps most significantly, the Mortons’ 3-year-old son, Eric, had told his grandmother that he saw a “monster” brutally attack his mother. Rita Kirkpatrick told an investigator days after the murder that they should focus on finding the monster and not on her son-in-law Michael Morton.

In a recent interview with the Tribune, Jesse Baker said he needs to know whether officials there allowed the man who murdered Morton to escape justice and kill his mother.

“The thought that they may have some responsibility in all this and they might not be held accountable is too much to think about,” he said.

 Bradley, the Williamson County D.A., directed questions to the Texas Attorney General's office, which is acting as special prosecutor in the case. Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman at the attorney general's office, referred questions to the Williamson County Sheriff's office.

 

 

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