Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout to include additional details from the testimony.
SAN ANGELO — The blue bandana whose long-held biological secrets led to the exoneration of Michael Morton and the indictment of Mark Alan Norwood in the 1986 killing of Christine Morton appeared in court on Wednesday.
In sometimes tearful testimony, Christine Morton’s brother John Kirkpatrick took the witness stand in Norwood's murder trial, telling jurors how he found the blue bandana that contained DNA evidence that linked the 58-year-old former Bastrop dishwasher to the 1986 murder of his sister.
Wednesday was the second day of testimony in the trial of Norwood, who is accused of beating Christine Morton to death on Aug. 13, 1986. Her husband, Michael Morton, was wrongly convicted of the crime in 1987. He spent nearly 25 years in prison before DNA evidence showed he was innocent. Norwood, who has pleaded not guilty, could face life in prison if convicted.
Special prosecutor Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general, pulled on white latex gloves in the courtroom before she dug into an evidence envelope that contained the blue bandana. Showing it to Kirkpatrick, Tanner unfolded the fabric and showed him both sides, asking whether it was the same item he found the day after his sister was murdered.
"That's the bandana I collected from the street," he said.
Becoming tearful, Kirkpatrick recalled the day his sister was murdered and the phone call he received from his father. “'I’m going to tell you the worst news you’re ever going to hear in your life,’” he said his father told him before informing him that his younger sister had been murdered.
He testified that on the day after the murder, he was frustrated because he thought that police weren’t doing enough in their investigation. So he began trying to re-create the killer’s movements. “As far as I was concerned, this was an outside intruder that had come in and killed my sister,” he said. “It seemed so obvious.”
Speaking softly and specifically, Kirkpatrick testified that he found the bandana – which had Christine Morton's blood and biological evidence from Norwood — at a construction site about 100 yards from the Mortons’ North Austin home on Aug. 14, 1986, the day after she was murdered.
Hoping to find clues the police were missing, Kirkpatrick said he tried to "channel" the murderer's movements. He looked out of the blinds on the sliding glass window in the Mortons' bedroom, where the killing occurred, and saw the woods directly behind the house. He walked through the backyard and jotted a note about footprints he saw near the fence that looked like they had been made by someone who had jumped over it. He walked from the Mortons' home, around the fence and through the woods behind it. He found the bandana on the street near a home that was under construction next to the woods.
“I immediately knew it was something,” he said. “It was just there by itself waiting for me to find it.”
Initially, he said he thought the bandana might have been run over by a car, but there weren't tire marks on it. A marine biologist who had experience with collecting scientific samples, Kirkpatrick described how he used his training to gather the bandana as a piece of evidence, placing it in a plastic bag for police after finding it.
"I collected it as cleanly as I could," he said.
He later demonstrated to the jury, using a white handkerchief, how he gently picked up the bandana, trying not to disturb evidence that might be on it.
Lawyers for Norwood sought to create questions about whether the bandana could have been contaminated, asking Kirkpatrick questions about the condition of the evidence, how he gathered it and how it was transferred to police.
Among the points attorney Ariel Payan emphasized was that Kirkpatrick placed the bandana in a plastic bag along with a napkin that he had also gathered during his investigative outing.
Initially, Kirkpatrick said he had sealed up the two items in separate bags. But Payan informed him the bandana and the napkin were retrieved from the sheriff's office in one bag. Kirkpatrick said that surprised him. But he also said that since the murder he had tried not to think about his sister's tragic death.
"I had put it out of my mind for so long, intentionally," he said, adding later that even his adult children, who were toddlers in 1986, were unaware of his sister's murder until 2011.
Payan also asked Kirkpatrick how far into the Mortons' bedroom he had walked, an effort to draw out whether he could have tracked biological evidence from the crime scene.
Kirkpatrick said he didn't want to be in the room, where the walls were still covered with his sister's blood and brain tissue, and he walked only a few feet from the bedroom's interior door to a sliding glass door that led outside.
For the first time in the trial, there was an accidental mention of Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction in front of the jury. It came as Kirkpatrick explained that for the last quarter-century he had tried to put his sister’s murder out of his mind.
“Initially, Mike Morton was the guilty party. And he was in prison,” Kirkpatrick said. The reference drew an objection from Tanner that was sustained, and there was no further mention of Morton’s conviction or exoneration.
Testimony continued after Kirkpatrick with police officers who worked at the Williamson County Sheriff's Department at the time of the crime describing the chain of custody of the bandana and how it was transported from the murder scene to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Among the officers to testify was David Proctor, who in 1986 was a jailer who was working to be promoted to patrol duty. The day of the murder was his day off, but he volunteered to go on patrol with another deputy to get experience in the field. Along with other officers, Proctor canvassed the Morton's neighborhood for evidence on the evening of the crime. In reports from the day, Proctor drew a diagram indicating that he found a blue bandana on the curb of the street in front of a vacant house under construction near the Mortons' home. He wrote that the bandana didn't appear to have blood or tissue on it and appeared to have been at the location for some time. So he left the bandana, which Kirkpatrick eventually retrieved, where it was.
Proctor, who is now disabled because of post traumatic stress syndrome after nearly two decades as a police officer, said he had no independent memory of the bandana.
"I'm 53 years old, but many times I have trouble remembering something I did yesterday, much less things that happened years and years ago, especially things I don't want to remember," he told the jury.
Tanner, in her questioning, emphasized that Proctor seemed to have given some consideration to the bandana as a potential item of significance because he noted it in his report. He didn't note, she said, the lumber, trash, construction debris and other items that he decided not to collect as evidence.
Defense lawyer Russell Hunt Jr., in his cross-examination, made the point that as a young jailer hoping to promote up to patrol, Proctor would likely have been extra diligent in his effort to gather any significant evidence.
"You didn't have any orders form on high to ignore evidence or anything like that?" he asked. Proctor said he did not.
Testimony largely focused on establishing the chain of custody of the bandana with Norwood and Christine Morton's DNA on it continues Wednesday. Prosecutors hope that the DNA will prove to jurors that Norwood came into contact with her blood and the bandana because he was the murderer. Norwood's lawyers are attempting to sow doubt among jurors about the validity of the evidence and show that it may have been contaminated.
Norwood’s trial is expected to last two weeks.
After the court recessed for the day, Michael Morton made brief remarks to reporters. He hasn't been allowed in the courtroom since testifying on Tuesday, because as a witness he is prohibited from hearing others testify in the case.
Morton said he did not make eye contact with Norwood while he was testifying. "It's not as intense as I expected it might be," he said.
He said he believed that Norwood deserves a fair trial.
"I truly hope justice is served here," Morton said.
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