The Austin Chronicle

Norwood Trial: Retracing the Morton Murder

By Chase Hoffberger, September 20, 2016, 7:30am, Newsdesk

Mark Norwood’s trial for the 1988 murder of Debra Baker should last at least two and a half days longer than originally anticipated. On Monday morning, Judge Julie Kocurek decided prosecutors will be allowed to bring into evidence the details of Christine Morton’s 1986 murder.

Norwood, 62, has already been convicted for Morton’s murder – a conviction surely bolstered by trial judge Burt Carnes’ decision to allow special prosecutor Lisa Tanner to bring into evidence the details of Baker’s murder, which took place two years after Morton’s. DNA was found linking Norwood to both crime scenes: in Morton’s case, a bandana showing traces of Morton’s blood and Norwood’s DNA found 150 away from the crime scene; in Baker’s, a pubic hair found on at the scene.

Prosecutors Gary Cobb, Allison Wetzel, and Katie Sweeten argued Monday before the jury arrived for morning proceedings that Carnes’ decision during Norwood's 2013 trial for Morton's murder should stand as precedent for Kocurek with regard to Baker’s case. Both cases boil down to questions over identity, and both rely on circumstantial evidence to prove the crime. What’s more, prosecutors argued, both murders involve a number of similarities – including, among other details, their happening on the same day of a month (the 13th), the victim’s similar demographic (young mothers in their 30s), the method of death (blunt trauma to each victim’s head) – enough to raise the characteristics to that of a signature crime. Prosecutors called into precedent Segundo v. State, a 2006 conviction of a 1986 rape and murder in Fort Worth that prosecutors secured after tying the suspect, Juan Ramon Meza Segundo, to another rape-murder from 1995, to establish cause for entering the Morton case.

Once admitted, deliberations opened with testimony from Elizabeth Morgan, a former neighbor of Michael and Christine Morton, who told of her discovery of Morton’s body in her bed on Aug. 13, 1986. Retired Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy David Locke detailed the crime scene. Prosecutors flipped through photographs of Morton’s bedroom to show a bloody and wrecked up site: drawers pulled out, blood spatter along the walls. Morton’s body was shown lying underneath a comforter, with a wooden chest and luggage piled up on top of her. Locke said that there was an unused condom on the living room floor. He said he was inside the house for 10 minutes before DPS specialists, including Anthony Arnold, who testified shortly after Locke, arrived to secure the scene.

Just before lunch, Michael Morton took the stand, after spending the first week in trial sitting in the courtroom’s audience with the Baker family. Morton testified to both time spent with his wife the night before her murder and his actions on the morning of the murder – when he left for work, and when he eventually returned after receiving a call from the sheriff’s office. He spoke to the makeup of their North Austin neighborhood around the time of the murder – an upcoming development with houses under construction. Morton also answered questions about a gun that was stolen from his home during the murder – a Colt Commander pistol taken from his bedroom closet. Jurors never heard that Morton spent 24 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of that murder. He remains eligible to take the stand later in Norwood’s trial.

Afternoon testimony included John and Diane Kirkpatrick, Christine Morton’s brother and sister-in-law, who together detailed John’s speculative re-tracing of the the assailant escape path from Morton’s bedroom. That effort culminated in John’s eventual retrieval of the bandana (and a napkin found in a nearby garage) that ultimately secured Norwood’s conviction. Norwood’s attorneys William Browning and Brad Urrutia spent much of the day’s final hours attempting to discredit John’s self-initiated investigation, challenging him on his memory of that journey.

Read Chase Hoffberger's previous coverage from the Norwood trial: dispatches 1, 2, and 3.

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