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Trial Switches Focus of Morton Case to Norwood

Mark Norwood for more than 16 months has been awaiting his trial that begins today for the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. Prosecutors could focus on his criminal history and will likely try to link him to evidence from the crime scene.

Mark Norwood being led into court for the first time on Jan. 18th 2011. He is charged with the 1986 murder of Christine Morton.

Mark Norwood, charged with the 1986 murder of Christine Morton — a crime that her husband, Michael Morton, was wrongfully convicted of — will go on trial Monday in San Angelo.

Michael Morton had spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars before DNA testing exonerated him in 2011 and connected Norwood, a 58-year-old former Bastrop dishwasher, to the beating death.

Norwood, who has been in the Williamson County Jail more than 16 months, has insisted that he is innocent. His trial is expected to last about two weeks, and if convicted, he could face life in prison. Christine Morton’s family, including Michael Morton, has asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.

During Norwood’s time in jail, the case has been the focus of hundreds of news reports and a documentary film released a week ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival. But little has been reported about Norwood, who has had an extensive and sometimes violent criminal past, public records show. Williamson County state district Judge Burt Carnes has issued a gag order in the case, and the barrage of news reports has centered on Michael Morton’s ordeal.

At the trial, prosecutors will attempt to piece together decades-old evidence to prove that Norwood walked into the Mortons’ North Austin home on Aug. 13, 1986, and beat Christine Morton to death as she lay in bed.

The proceedings may also provide a clearer picture of how the original murder investigation went awry, resulting in Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction. Prosecutors and defense lawyers across Texas will be watching the trial closely.

“Research is starting to show that a leading cause of wrongful convictions is ‘tunnel vision’ by investigators or prosecutors,” said Shannon Edmonds, spokesman for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “And the Norwood trial could highlight that as being an original problem that led to Mr. Morton’s conviction.”

At the time of Christine Morton’s murder, Norwood had a criminal record that included convictions for burglary and assault with intent to murder. He lived about 12 miles from the Mortons’ North Austin home.

Norwood dropped out of Austin's Crockett High School in 11th grade to join the U.S. Air Force, from which he was honorably discharged in 1974. By 1980, Norwood was married and living with his first wife and their daughter in Nashville, Tenn., when he and an accomplice were arrested and charged with attempted felony theft. Police said the two were trying to lift an engine out of a Chevrolet Chevelle. He was also charged with receiving stolen property, and police reported that he was driving a stolen van. Norwood was sentenced to probation after he pleaded guilty and requested leniency from the court.

“Nothing has shaken the defendant so thoroughly as the realization that his misconduct in this case could have led, and still might lead, to a stay in the Penitentiary of the State of Tennessee,” Norwood’s August 1980 petition for a suspended sentence states. “This experience has shaken both him and his wife and has been an eye-opener that will be with him and his family for the rest of his life.”

It wasn’t long, though, before Norwood was again in legal trouble. Arrest records show he was charged in 1983 in Nashville with malicious mischief, assault with intent to commit murder and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Employment records filed in the murder case against Norwood show that by 1984, he had returned to Austin, where he lived in North Austin and worked as a carpet installer.

In 1987 — about one year after Christine Morton’s murder — Travis County court records show that police tracked Norwood down and searched his home after neighbors reported seeing items that had been stolen from them at a garage sale in his yard. The items included clothing on which the neighbors had written their initials.

“In the course of the search, property from four separate burglaries, which occurred in the same neighborhood, was recovered, and identified by the victims,” a police account states.

Norwood pleaded guilty to felony theft, and in April 1988, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general who is leading the Norwood prosecution in the Morton case, will try to show jurors that in 1986, before he was arrested in the felony theft case, his forays into strangers’ homes had turned violent. His DNA was identified on a bandana with Christine Morton's blood on it that was found about 100 yards away from the Morton home.

Norwood’s family and associates over the decades are among the 199 names on a witness list Tanner filed in the case. On the list are police officers from Austin and Tennessee, people who reported crimes Norwood was accused of in Tennessee, his mother, two of his ex-wives, his son and a former employer. Also on the witness list are some of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department deputies who examined the Morton murder in 1986, and Ken Bates, an investigator whom Michael Morton’s lawyers hired to help build their argument that an intruder had committed the crime. Michael Morton is also expected to testify at the trial. It will be the first occasion on which Morton will share a room with the man suspected of committing the crime that took his wife and led to his wrongful conviction.

In 1986, Williamson County Sheriff’s Department investigators focused on Morton as the culprit largely because of a note they found in the couple’s bathroom in which he told his wife he was disappointed they hadn’t made love the previous night, his birthday.

They appeared to give no credence to a call from Morton’s mother-in-law, who told police that her 3-year-old grandson had seen a “monster” with a big mustache beat his mother. And there appeared to be little follow-up on reports from the Mortons’ neighbors, who said they saw a man in a green van park near the family's home and walk into the woods behind it.

Despite Morton’s protests that he was innocent — he explained that his wife had been alive when he left for work the morning of the crime — investigators homed in on him. The prosecutor, Ken Anderson, who is now a Williamson County state district judge, convinced the jury that Morton beat his wife to death in a sex-crazed rage. (Anderson is facing potential criminal and civil action for his role in the case. Morton’s lawyers allege he withheld those key items of evidence during the 1987 trial. Anderson has denied allegations of wrongdoing.) The jury sentenced Morton to life in prison.

There were, however, other clues at the crime scene that didn’t implicate Morton. Whether Tanner can connect any of those pieces of evidence to Norwood remains to be seen.

Investigators found about 15 sets of fingerprints at the crime scene that did not match Christine Morton or their son, Eric, including two sets on the unlocked sliding glass door and others in the master bedroom. There was also an unidentified footprint in the Mortons’ backyard. A .45-caliber gun was also stolen from the  home. 

Tanner may also try to tie Norwood to the neighbors’ reports about the man in the green van. Divorce records show that in 1981, when Norwood divorced his first wife, he kept a 1974 Chevrolet van, though the documents don't say the color of it.

The prosecution could also bring up Norwood’s link to a similar murder in Travis County for which he is also charged. His DNA was found on a pubic hair at the scene of Debra Baker’s murder in January 1988. She was found beaten to death in her bed just blocks away from Norwood’s home, and members of her family are on the state’s witness list. 

Jurors may also hear that Norwood’s crimes didn’t stop after the 1987 felony theft. In 2007, Norwood was arrested in California and charged with felony drug possession and misdemeanor resistance or obstruction. It was during that offense that law enforcement officers took a biological sample from Norwood and entered it into the national DNA database. When lawyers for Michael Morton obtained permission to test DNA on the blue bandana — after more than six years of battling in court — the results were linked to Norwood through the national database.

And in October 2010, just more than a year before he was arrested in the Morton case, Norwood was arrested and charged with assault causing bodily injury in Bastrop.

Despite his criminal past, Norwood’s lawyers could also have a strong defense to make, one veteran criminal defense attorney said. Bobby Mims, the incoming president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said that authorities already got this case wrong once before.

“How can they be so confident of it this time? That is a legitimate defense,” he said. “You didn’t get it right the last time, you may not have it right this time.”

For prosecutors, trying decades-old cases that have been reopened because of DNA evidence is not as novel as it once was, said Edmonds, of the prosecutors’ association. What makes this case so unusual, he said, is that investigators were able to match the DNA that exonerated Morton with someone whose DNA was in the national database. And while that unusual circumstance has occurred in some rape cases, often the statute of limitations has expired, so the suspect cannot be tried. But a murder charge has no such time constraint.

“That’s just the ripple effect DNA’s usage has had in the criminal justice system,” Edmonds said. “Like any science, it’s not necessarily foolproof, but when done correctly, it can be.”

Former KXAN News investigative reporter Nanci Wilson contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to indicate that Norwood could face life in prison.

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