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After Decades, DNA Testing and a Conviction

The prosecutor who secured Mark Norwood's murder conviction says that if Michael Morton had not fought from prison to prove his innocence in his wife's murder, the DNA testing that led to Norwood’s conviction might not have been done.

Mark Norwood exits the Tom Green County Courthouse after jury selection for his trial, Mar 18, 2013.

“I would love to think there is something that could have been done differently, but I think that’s really speculative,” said Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general who oversaw the prosecution of Norwood. He was sentenced to life in prison last month for the 1986 murder in Austin of Christine Morton.

In 1986, police officers and prosecutors seized on Morton as the culprit, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He remained in prison for 24 years and seven months, until DNA testing linked Norwood to Christine Morton’s death, and to the murder of Debra Baker in 1988. In October 2011, Morton was released; about a month later, Norwood was arrested.

Morton’s lawyers, including John Raley, of Houston-based Raley & Bowick, who helped secure his exoneration, have argued that the focus on him by law enforcement officials caused them to ignore evidence that could have prevented not only his wrongful imprisonment but also Baker’s death.

"There is no evidence these clues, which could have led to Norwood, were ever followed," Raley said.

Morton’s case wasn’t the only one lawyers said was hurt by the original investigation. Norwood’s lawyers said their case was also affected by problems in the investigation 25 years ago.

“I think it’s been too long to really be able to say beyond a reasonable doubt what actually happened,” said Ariel Payan, one of Norwood’s lawyers.

Tanner agreed that clues that detectives had allowed to go cold were frustrating and that their rush to judgment contributed to Morton’s wrongful conviction. But she said those bits of uninvestigated information were unlikely to have led officers to the killer in 1986.

“It is a terrible injustice, but to go back and say, ‘If you had just done this’ — I don’t think you can engage in that very effectively,” she said during an interview at her Austin office.

In the end, she said, it was only recent advances in DNA testing that led investigators to Norwood. His biological profile was not available in a national database until after he was arrested in California in 2007. Once the police identified Norwood through that database, they tracked down the other crucial piece of evidence that linked him to Christine Morton’s murder: a .45-caliber gun stolen from the Mortons' home that day. If Morton had not been in prison fighting to prove his innocence, Tanner said, the DNA testing that led to Norwood’s conviction might not have been done.

“All the DNA evidence and all, it’s pretty undisputable, which made our decision a lot easier,” said Laura Malloy, one of 7 women on the 12-member jury that convicted Norwood.

Within 30 minutes of surveying the scene of Christine Morton’s murder, investigators decided that her husband was the killer, Tanner said. Officers saw a note he had left for his wife lamenting her having fallen asleep while he made amorous advances the previous night. They noted the brutality of the crime and pointed out that the killer had  not stolen items in plain sight, including a camera and jewelry.

“They had already decided he did it,” Tanner said.

Other clues were left unexplored. Neighbors’ reports of vans spotted near the Mortons’ home were not pursued. When Eric, the Mortons’ 3-year-old son, told his grandmother he had seen a “monster” with a big mustache beat his mother and that his father was not at home, she relayed the information to a detective. The child’s story was dismissed.

Soon after taking on the case in 2011, Tanner read the detective’s transcript with the boy’s  comments. She recalled swiveling around in her desk chair to examine a timeline on her office wall that contained photos of Norwood. In each, a bushy mustache obscured his upper lip.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" she said. “I couldn’t hardly catch my breath."

It was another piece of evidence, though, that would be crucial to the case.

A day after his sister’s death, John Kirkpatrick searched on his own for clues. At Norwood’s trial, he told jurors that he had tried to “channel” the murderer’s path. He found a bandana on the ground near a home behind the Mortons’. A trained biologist and investigator, Kirkpatrick said he carefully picked it up, placed it and another item he found in a plastic bag, and gave them to the police.

At the time, DNA testing did not exist. The bandana sat untouched for decades, until Morton won a protracted legal battle to analyze the DNA.

“He’s the hero,” Tanner said of Kirkpatrick.

At the trial, Tanner spent days methodically presenting witnesses who explained how the bandana had been gathered, stored and tested. Law enforcement officials told jurors how they had linked biological material on the bandana to Norwood by searching the national database of DNA profiles. And experts explained that Ms. Morton’s blood had been mixed with Norwood’s DNA on the bandana.

After the police identified Norwood in 2011 and began investigating his background, they discovered he had worked for Louis  "Sonny" Homer Wann Jr., who had moved from Austin to Nashville, Tenn. Wann showed the police a gun that Norwood sold him in 1986, the same one stolen the day of Christine Morton’s murder.

Prosecutors presented more experts who told jurors they had discovered Norwood’s DNA on pubic hair at the home of Debra Baker, who was murdered on Jan. 13, 1988. Like Christine Morton, she was beaten to death in bed with a blunt object.

Jurors who spoke to The Texas Tribune seemed as impressed by the state’s wealth of evidence as they were shocked by the minimal case that Norwood’s lawyers had presented. The lawyers brought only three witnesses to the stand, including the defendant’s mother, Dorothy Norwood.

“They didn’t do anything in my mind to try to show where this guy was or anything,” Malloy said.

Norwood and Connie Hoff, Norwood’s sister, said they were frustrated with what they viewed as a lackluster defense and unfair trial. They insist that he is innocent, a victim of the same kind of tunnel vision that led to Morton’s wrongful conviction. Over and over, they said, they suggested to his lawyers character witnesses and others who could have helped bolster the case.

Russell Hunt, Norwood’s lead defense lawyer, said he and Payan had done everything they could. But their hands were tied by, among other things, the age of the case and the limited scope of the initial investigation.

Because the police had not further investigated mysterious van sightings by neighbors or followed up on a burglar alarm that sounded at a home down the street from the Mortons’ the morning of the murder or pursued the “monster” Eric spoke of, they had little evidence to develop an alternative theory of the murder to counter the prosecution’s case.

“There is a story that the police reports tell, and the story is that Michael Morton did it,” Hunt said.

The lawyers said they spent most of the trial trying to avoid anything that would allow prosecutors to tell jurors about Norwood’s criminal history, including theft and burglary charges in the 1980s, and, most importantly, about the pending charges in the Baker murder.

“Sometimes when you’re a defender you can accuse other people of things and say aggressively, ‘My client has the greatest character in the world and could never have done these things,’” Hunt said. “This was a case where our options were a little limited.”

The defense lawyers decided their best option was to raise questions about the state’s key evidence: the DNA and the gun. They pointed out to jurors that investigators in 1986 had not taken the precautions normally taken today to prevent contamination.

“That was an incredibly bloody crime scene, and you had people trampling in and out of it,” Payan said. “Nowadays, we would think that crime scene was totally contaminated.”

The witnesses they brought to the stand — Dorothy Norwood, Wann’s ex-wife and his daughter — testified that the man who said he had bought the gun from Norwood was untrustworthy.

Over objections from Norwood’s lawyers, Williamson County state district Judge Burt Carnes allowed prosecutors to tell jurors about the similarities between the Baker and Morton killings. In both cases, the murderer piled pillows on top of the victim’s head. The women were beaten with blunt objects. Neither was sexually assaulted. And Norwood’s DNA was connected to both crime scenes.

Norwood’s lawyers said that evidence should not have been allowed. He has not been convicted of that crime, and they argued that it was not identical to the Morton murder. But the prosecutors’ introduction of the Baker case helped seal their client’s fate.

“It felt as though the oxygen had left the room,” Hunt said.

Jurors deliberated for about three hours before finding Norwood guilty of capital murder. Because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, he was assessed an automatic life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Jurors said there was little debate about Norwood’s guilt. They had been convinced, Malloy said, by the state’s DNA evidence.

Dorothy Norwood said the trial had been overwhelming for her family. She described her son as a family man and cancer survivor who had cared for her after her husband died. For them, the ordeal is far from over. Norwood has requested a new trial, and he faces another murder trial for Debra Baker’s death.

“Some of us know he is innocent of both of these crimes,” Dorothy Norwood said.

For Christine Morton’s family, the second trial for her murder resurrected long-buried sorrow.

Each day, Marylee Kirkpatrick Olson, Christine Morton’s sister, sat in the courtroom and heard how investigators pieced together the truth about her death, a reality the family had come to understand after Morton’s exoneration in 2011. Alongside her was Eric, whom she adopted after her sister’s murder. Now 29, he sat between his wife, Maggie, and Olson, clasping their hands as he learned the details of his mother’s violent death.

After the second trial, Olson said, she is certain that jurors convicted the right man.

“We are avid believers in fate, and watching testimony after testimony allowed all of the puzzle pieces to fall into place,” Olson said. “It’s a shame the bandanna sat locked up in an evidence file for so many years.”

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Courts Criminal justice Michael Morton