Start of Norwood Trial Brings Emotional Testimony

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Eric Olson, who was 3 when his mother Christine Morton was murdered in 1986, enters the Tom Green County Courthouse with his wife Maggie Olson for the trial of Mark Alan Norwood on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.
Eric Olson, who was 3 when his mother Christine Morton was murdered in 1986, enters the Tom Green County Courthouse with his wife Maggie Olson for the trial of Mark Alan Norwood on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout to include details of Tuesday's court testimony.

SAN ANGELO — Christine and Michael Morton's son, Eric Olson, spent much of Tuesday afternoon with his head bent over his lap, averting his gaze from gruesome photos of his mother's unrecognizable face taken after she was beaten to death nearly 27 years ago in her bed in the family's North Austin home.

It was the first day of Mark Alan Norwood's murder trial in the Tom Green County Courthouse. Norwood, 58, a onetime Bastrop dishwasher, is accused of beating Christine Morton to death — a crime for which her husband, Michael Morton, was wrongfully convicted in 1987 and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Eric Olson was 3 when his mother was killed, and though he has said he does not remember it now, he was in the room when the crime was committed. Norwood, who faces life in prison if convicted, has insisted that he is innocent of the murder.

On the first full day of trial, lawyers for the state and for Norwood previewed their cases for the jury in opening statements. The state said it would prove that Norwood is linked to the murder both by DNA evidence and by a gun stolen from the crime scene. Norwood's lawyers said they would show the jury that the state's evidence is not strong enough to convict their client. The day was marked by the emotional testimony of Michael Morton, who for the first time faced his wife's alleged killer in the courtroom, and by gory photos of the murder scene. It was also notable for the absence of any reference to Morton's wrongful conviction for the crime. 

In opening remarks that lasted nearly an hour, Tanner detailed the DNA evidence that connects Norwood to the crime. Michael Morton was released from prison in 2011 after DNA testing showed that Norwood's biological material was mixed with Christine Morton's blood on a blue bandana found about 100 yards away from the couple's home. She told jurors only that the evidence on the bandana had waited decades for science to advance to the point that the DNA could be tested — not about Morton's exoneration.

 

"It sat and it waited and it waited," Tanner said. "And finally, in 2011, technology had advanced to such a state that it was tested."

She also told jurors that Norwood stole a .45-caliber pistol from Morton's home and then sold it to a friend of his named Louis "Sonny" Wann, for whom he had done construction work in Austin during the fall of 1986. Tanner said that investigators tracked the gun through its serial number and located it in the gun collection of Wann, who lives in Tennessee. She said Wann told investigators that he purchased the gun from Norwood for $50.

As Tanner told the jury about Wann and the gun, Norwood's mother, Dorothy Norwood, moaned audibly from her seat in the courtroom and put her hands on her face.

Tanner said that Norwood was the intruder who Michael Morton for decades had insisted killed his wife. “The intruder has been unmasked,” she said. “That unidentified man who [Michael Morton] always knew was there is here.”

Tanner also told jurors details about the Morton family's life in 1986. Michael and Christine Morton were living the American dream until the murder. The couple had successful careers, a new home and their 3-year-old son Eric was healthy for the first time after recovering from heart surgery to repair a congenital defect. It has taken decades, Tanner told the jury, for the forensic science to develop to the point that Norwood could be identified. She asked the jury to hold him accountable. “It’s time,” she said. “It’s been a long time, and it’s here.”

In an opening statement of about five minutes, Norwood's attorney Ariel Payan of Austin said that his heart goes out to the Morton family. But he reminded jurors that they must put their feelings aside and do their job of weighing the evidence in the case. He said that there are only two issues in the case: “Contamination and liars. That’s it. That’s all this case is.”

The opening statements indicated that Norwood's lawyers, Payan and Russell Hunt Jr., will attempt to prove to the jury that the DNA evidence is unreliable and that some of the witnesses the state puts on the stand will not be credible.

Michael Morton was the first to take the stand on Tuesday. He described the day before the murder — his birthday, Aug. 12, 1986 — when the family celebrated by going out to dinner. The next morning, Morton testified, when he left for work, his wife and son were sleeping. When he left work to pick up Eric from the babysitter about 2 p.m., Eric wasn’t there. He called home. The Williamson County sheriff was at his house and told him to come immediately.

 

When he arrived, the sheriff told him Christine was dead.

“I asked if it was murder and he was very matter of fact, and he said, ‘Yes it was,’” Morton testified.

Morton's voice cracked as he recalled being questioned by the sheriff in his home and remembered the flash of cameras that snapped photos of the murder scene in his bedroom. He recalled officers dumping ice in the sink so they could have cold drinks.

Morton said that a .45-caliber pistol was stolen from their home, and he hasn't seen it since. For the first time in more than a quarter-century, he held the .45-caliber pistol that was stolen from his home. 

As he sat in the witness stand, Tanner handed him the weapon that she alleged Norwood took from a closet in the Morton's home after he brutally beat Christine Morton to death with a blunt wooden object.

"That's my old pistol," Morton said, turning the shiny black Colt gun in his hands. "I don't remember the last time I saw it."

Neither Tanner nor Payan, who cross-examined Morton, asked the exoneree about his conviction. The judge in November signed an order in the case that prevents either side from bringing up Morton’s conviction or his exoneration.

Some had expected Norwood’s defense to hang largely on the state’s previous wrongful conviction — the theory being that if prosecutors made a mistake once in the murder investigation, they could do it again. Hunt, Norwood’s lead defense lawyer, said that while the prohibition was a complicating factor in the trial, it didn’t change his approach to defending his client.

“That doesn’t worry me any more than just the seriousness of the case,” Hunt said.

Elizabeth Gee Morgan testified after Morton. She lived next door to the Mortons in 1986 and was the first to find Christine Morton after she saw young Eric sitting alone on the home's front stoop wearing dirty socks and a full diaper. Morgan recounted finding the gruesome scene, the blue suitcase and wicker basket piled on top of Christine Morton's body in her bed, and calling the police. 

Among the first to arrive that day was Anthony Arnold, who in 1986 worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab. He testified that investigators processed the crime scene one layer at a time, as Tanner displayed photos that one by one revealed more awful details of the crime: blood spattered from the floor molding to the ceiling, chunks of bone and tissue on the carpet and waterbed headboard, a drop of blood on an overturned drawer, and finally the young mother’s badly beaten corpse laying in a pink nightgown on blue sheets.

Sitting on a wooden courtroom bench next to his wife, Maggie, Eric Olson looked away from the massive screen in the front of the room, bending at the waist, hanging his head low over his lap. Maggie reached over and rubbed his back. 

In the jury box, one juror covered part of her face with her hand as the images appeared on screen. Another covered her mouth with a hand.

When defense lawyer Payan cross-examined Arnold, he asked pointed questions about how and where investigators gathered the evidence. Did they gather evidence in other parts of the home? No, Arnold said. Did they wear gloves? No, he responded. Did they use booties to cover their shoes? No, again.

The final testimony Tuesday came from Diane Kirkpatrick, who is married to Christine Morton’s brother John Kirkpatrick. She described how her husband found the blue bandana that ultimately connected Norwood to the crime. The day after the murder, her husband was distraught and intent on finding clues the authorities may have missed. He went into the Morton’s bedroom, still wrecked and bloody from the crime, she said.

“He said, ‘I have to give in to the mind of the person who could have done this,’” she recalled. He went from the bedroom out of the house through the sliding glass door and while she waited, he walked into the wooded area behind the Morton’s house. Along the fence line, she said, he found the blue bandana with blood on it.

John Kirkpatrick brought it back to show her, holding the bandana from a corner with his fingertips. He instructed her not to touch it, put it in a plastic bag and called the police, Diane Kirkpatrick recalled.

Payan, on cross-examination, asked her whether there was still blood in the bedroom when her husband went in, raising the possibility that he, not Norwood, could have transferred the victim’s blood to the bandana. Payan also asked Kirpatrick to demonstrate with a white handkerchief the way in which her husband had carried the bandana. She held the square of fabric from one corner and waved it. He reminded her that husband also had gathered a napkin on his investigative trek. If he were delicately holding the bandana and the napkin in his two hands, Payan asked, how would he have opened the door to get back into the house to put the items in plastic bags? Kirkpatrick struggled to remember.

Testimony will continue Wednesday. Norwood’s trial is expected to last two weeks. Williamson County State District Judge Burt Carnes moved the case to Tom Green County because of extensive media coverage of the Morton case in Central Texas.

 

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