SAN ANGELO — Twelve jurors were chosen Monday in the Tom Green County Courthouse to decide whether Mark Alan Norwood is guilty of capital murder in the 1986 bludgeoning death of Christine Morton in North Austin.
Norwood, a former Bastrop dishwasher, faces life in prison after DNA testing linked him to Christine Morton's murder, a crime for which her husband Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1987 and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Michael Morton was released 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.
Norwood has insisted that he is innocent both of the Morton murder and of the 1988 murder of Debra Baker in Austin, a similar crime for which he also faces trial. Wearing a dark shirt and black pants, Norwood entered and left the courthouse in a wheelchair. He sat and listened as his defense lawyer, Russell Hunt Jr., and special prosecutor Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general, posed questions to a room full of potential jurors.
Hunt's questions to the jury pool — dozens of Tom Green County residents of various ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds — provided a bit of foreshadowing of the arguments he may make on Norwood's behalf. First, he impressed upon the jury pool the importance of the case to Norwood.
"He is on trial for his life," Hunt said. "This is the absolute most important event in his life."
Hunt asked the potential jurors their thoughts about a co-conspirator or someone who was with another person during the commission of a property crime, such as a burglary, that turned violent. In the Morton case, prosecutors argue that the victim was beaten to death by an intruder who stole a .45-caliber gun from the home. Norwood's criminal history includes theft and burglary convictions. And Hunt asked whether the potential jurors would be able to consider sentencing Norwood to a lesser crime if they found that he was only a party to a burglary, not the actual murder.
Dorothy Norwood, his mother, told the Austin American-Statesman recently that her son believed someone else killed Christine Morton.
"He feels another man is responsible who is a contractor,” she told the newspaper.
Tanner's questions to the jury pool focused largely on how they would view DNA evidence and how they would evaluate potential witnesses in the case.
The DNA link to Norwood will be a critical piece of evidence in the state's case. The bandana containing the DNA evidence was discovered in 1986, but the DNA results were not revealed until 2011. Tanner explained to the potential jurors that forensic evidence such as DNA is a common type of circumstantial evidence, but she warned them against using television crime dramas like CSI as a guide for their evaluations.
"Most of what we see on the show is just that, it's fiction," she said.
Tanner also reminded the potential jurors not to prejudge witnesses they may hear from based on how they look or their professions. Tanner's witness list contains 199 names, some of whom are associates and family members of Norwood. Tanner also reminded the jury pool that the case is more than a quarter-century old, so some witnesses' memories may be inexact.
And finally, Tanner reminded the potential jurors that the case is critical not only for Norwood, who faces life in prison if he is convicted, but also for the victims of the crime.
"This is very serious," she said. "This is very serious to this defendant. This is very serious to Christine Morton's family."
The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Michael Morton is expected to testify after attorneys give their opening statements. 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.