SAN ANGELO — Jurors in the murder trial of Mark Norwood on Thursday saw graphic photos of the massive head injuries that caused Christine Morton’s death in 1986, and they heard from a former friend of Norwood who said he purchased the gun that prosecutors believe Norwood stole the day of the beating death.
On the third day of Norwood’s capital murder trial, prosecutors concluded their presentation of DNA evidence that links him to a blue bandana found about 100 yards away from the North Austin crime scene. That evidence led to the exoneration of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in 1987 and spent nearly 25 years in prison. It also led to Norwood’s arrest and indictment.
Norwood has pleaded not guilty, and his family members, including his 81-year-old mother Dorothy Norwood, who has been barred from the courtroom as a potential witness, say that he is innocent. The evidence against her son, Dorothy Norwood said, is purely circumstantial. Norwood could face life if convicted.
Special prosecutors Lisa Tanner and Adrienne MacFarland, assistant attorneys general, contend that DNA evidence is not the only link between Norwood and the murder. They say he also stole a gun from the Morton home and sold it to his employer and friend, Louis Homer "Sonny" Wann. And prosecutors haven’t told jurors yet that Norwood’s DNA has also been linked to the 1988 Austin murder of Debra Baker, who, like Christine Morton, was beaten to death in her bed.
Scientists from Orchid Cellmark, the Dallas-based company that performed the DNA testing, explained to jurors in detail how they conducted testing on the blue bandana in the lab and the precision of the matching. They found Christine Morton’s blood on the bandana mixed with biological material from Norwood. Huma Nasir, a forensic scientist at Orchid Cellmark who conducted some of the testing, said the statistical probability of the male DNA she found matching with any other Caucasian man but Norwood was 1 in 662.9 trillion.
“This would be about 100 times the world’s population,” she explained.
The doctor whose testimony played a large role in Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction also took the stand Thursday. Dr. Roberto Bayardo, who was the Travis County Medical Examiner from 1978 until 2006, conducted Christine Morton’s autopsy in 1986.
During Morton’s 1987 trial, Bayardo told the jury that the state of the undigested food in her stomach indicated that Christine Morton could have died before her husband left for work early the morning of Aug. 13, 1986. The Williamson County prosecutor who secured Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction seized on that testimony to convince jurors that the former grocery store owner had beaten his wife to death.
The Tom Green County jurors who are responsible for Norwood’s fate haven’t been told about Morton’s wrongful conviction during the current trial. The judge has signed a motion that prevents discussion of it. During his time on the stand Thursday, Bayardo declined to speculate on Christine Morton’s time of death and said that evaluating stomach contents to make such a determination was inexact.
Bayardo did explain to jurors the severity and extent of the head wounds that caused her death. Christine and Michael Morton’s son Eric Olson, his wife Maggie, and Christine Morton’s sister Marylee Kirkpatrick left the courtroom before the graphic photos were presented. One by one, prosecutors projected on the large screen at the front of the room images that showed her disfigured face, her eyes bulging and blackened, brain tissue protruding from her forehead, teeth that had been beaten out of her broken jaw, massive fractures in her skull and defensive bruising on her hands.
“She was trying to protect herself from the blows by putting her hands in front of her face,” Bayardo said. He went on to explain that she had suffered at least eight blows and that during the examination he found three half-inch-long blackened wood chips that he believed were remnants of the blunt object used in the attack.
Finally on Thursday, jurors heard from Louis “Sonny” Homer Wann Jr., a former employer and friend of Norwood, who said he purchased a .45-caliber Colt combat commander gun from him. Wann, who lives in Tennessee, gave his testimony in a videotaped deposition taken in September in Austin. Looking disheveled and tired, Wann said in the video that he couldn’t fly to attend the trial in West Texas because he’s “scared to death” of planes. And Wann said he had suffered two strokes and had diabetes and high blood pressure that prevented him from traveling long distances by car.
The 67-year-old former Austin construction company owner said he hired Norwood to work with him on some jobs in the 1980s before he moved to Tennessee. At one of those work sites, he said, Norwood sold him a .45-caliber automatic pistol. Wann described himself as a gun collector and said he owned more than 20.
“I’ve got a passion for them,” he said. “My favorite guns are old Western guns.”
Investigators found that the serial number on the gun Wann said he bought from Norwood matched that of a gun that was stolen from the Mortons' home during the murder. During Michael Morton's testimony on Tuesday, prosecutors showed him the gun they recovered from Wann, and he recognized the custom work that had been done to the pistol.
Tanner also asked Wann about what kind of vehicles Norwood drove during the 1980s. Neighbors of the Mortons said they saw a man in a green van park near the woods behind their home and walk into the area in the days before the crime.
Wann said Norwood drove a Ford van that was white and burnt orange. He said he also sold Norwood a white “bread van” for $100. “He still owes me $50 on it,” he added.
In the deposition, Norwood’s lead defense lawyer, Russell Hunt Jr., asked Wann whether he had had an extramarital affair with Norwood’s wife at the time, Judy Fay Norwood. Wann said he helped Judy Fay Norwood move away from Austin when she separated from her husband and went to Tennessee. And he said they had a relationship when they both lived in Tennessee, but Wann denied carrying on an affair with her.
Hunt also asked Wann how he had stored his gun collection, including the pistol. The guns were in a closet at his home, he said, “all hid up under a rat's nest of clothes.” And Hunt asked why Wann hadn’t told investigators who initially interviewed him about the high-caliber weapons he had. “It wasn’t any of their business,” Wann said.
Wann described Norwood as a friend and said that he would be surprised if he were involved in a murder because he never saw him act violently. Norwood, who he called “a big ole boy,” was a hard worker and mostly helped him with sheetrock work on construction jobs, Wann said.
Norwood’s trial, which was moved to Tom Green County because of extensive publicity in the Central Texas area, is expected to continue into next week.
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