Critical Evidence

DNA testing of a blue bandana exonerated Michael Morton. Could the small square of cloth also be the linchpin that seals Mark Alan Norwood's fate?

By Comments

Mark Norwood is wheeled into the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, Wednesday March 20, 2013 for the second day of his murder trial. Recent DNA evidence was used to charge Norwood in the 1986 killing of Christine Morton in Williamson County
AP Photo | San Angelo Standard-Times, Patrick Dove

To careful observers of Michael Morton’s long search for justice, one of the biggest revelations of Mark Alan Norwood’s capital murder trial came late in the day Wednesday, when a Williamson County employee named Jennifer Smith took the stand. For much of the day, testimony had centered on the bloody blue bandana that had been found behind the Morton home in 1986 and was finally subjected to DNA testing in 2011. (The results exonerated Michael, who had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, Christine, and brought about the indictment of Norwood, whose DNA was found intermingled with her blood.) As readers of my series on Michael’s case may remember, that DNA testing had taken place over the heated objections of then-Williamson County D.A. John Bradley. Michael’s attorneys had filed their first motion for DNA testing back in 2005, and Bradley had fought them for the next five years until an appellate court stepped in and issued an order that the testing be performed. 

The battle over DNA testing has not been discussed in front of the jury in the Norwood case. (Nor have any of the details of Michael’s wrongful conviction, due to a court order that bars any testimony about it during Norwood’s trial.) But Williamson County’s longstanding resistance to having the bandana tested was very much on my mind when Smith—who supervises the county’s evidence room—testified that no one had been able to locate the bandana until it was finally discovered on May 25, 2010. (This date, not coincidentally, follows closely on the heels of a judge’s order instructing the county to submit the bandana for DNA testing.) It was on that day, Smith said, that she was visited by a prosecutor and an investigator from the D.A.’s office who instructed her to open every single sealed envelope in the Morton evidence file. Eventually, after carefully opening and re-sealing each envelope, she was able to locate the bandana. “It wasn’t labeled properly, so we didn’t know it was there,” Smith told the jury.

In fairness to Smith, she seemed diligent and eager to modernize the poorly-organized evidence room that she had inherited. She testified that after more digging, she eventually managed to locate the strand of hair that had been found with the bandana in 1986. (The hair was hidden, as if it were a Russian nesting doll, inside a succession of mislabeled manila envelopes.) Then, and only then, was the evidence ready to be submitted for testing. In other words, throughout the five years that Williamson County had staged a pitched battle in state and federal court to block DNA testing of the bandana and the strand of hair, no one actually knew their whereabouts.

Much of Wednesday’s testimony highlighted the capriciousness of Williamson County justice, and testimony from John Kirkpatrick, Christine’s older brother, emphasized local law enforcement’s seeming indifference to aggressively investigating the case. Kirkpatrick’s lingering exasperation was evident as he described arriving at the Morton home the morning after the murder. “I didn’t see any police,” he told the jury. “I was frustrated by the total lack of investigation. I felt like so many things should have been happening for such a recent event.” Frantic to take action before leads went cold, he said he made phone calls around town, trying to see if anyone could conduct a search of the surrounding area with tracking dogs, which he hoped could pick up the scent of his sister’s killer. “As far as I was concerned, this was an outside intruder that had come in and killed my sister,” he testified. “It seemed so obvious.”

Out of desperation he decided to try to re-trace the killer’s footsteps. He started at the spot where he felt certain that the intruder had entered the Morton home: the sliding glass door at the rear of the house, which had been unlocked on the morning of the murder. From there, he walked across the backyard to the inside perimeter of the privacy fence, where he said he noticed one, or maybe two, impressions in the ground that appeared to be where someone had landed after jumping the fence. Then he walked around behind the fence and looked back at the Morton home. “You could see through the fence,” he said. “There were gaps in the boards where you could see Michael’s comings and goings, and when Chrissy was gone. This was how someone had cased it out.”

He told the jury that he explored the densely wooded lot behind the privacy fence until he reached a nearby construction site. It was there, by the curb, that he spotted the bandana. “The moment I saw it, I knew it was important,” he said. “I carefully picked it up and looked at it.” He remembered noting that portions of the bandana were discolored. “I’m not going to say I knew it was blood, but it looked abnormal,” Kirkpatrick told the jury. He picked up the bandana by the corner, being as careful as possible not to contaminate it. Then he walked back into the Morton home, placed it in a Ziploc bag, and called the sheriff’s department. Kirkpatrick stated that he was never questioned by law enforcement about the bandana, and he never heard about it again.

Kirkpatrick said he left Texas after his sister’s funeral. “I put this as far out of my mind for so long,” he testified. He went on to explain that he and his wife had only recently informed their grown children—who are 28 and 30—that Christine had been murdered.

A normally taciturn marine biologist, Kirkpatrick was overcome with emotion several times as he recounted memories of his baby sister. He told the jury of attending her 1979 wedding to Michael, at which she aimed her bouquet right at him, striking him in the chest. When he let the bouquet fall to the ground, she picked it up and forced it into his hands. Three months later, he told the jury, he met his future wife, Dianne. Kirkpatrick also recalled the day that he learned Christine had been murdered. His father, John, called and said, “I’m going to tell you the worst news you’re ever going to hear in your life.”

The other witnesses who took the stand Wednesday included two former law enforcement officers, a crime lab technician, and a crime scene photographer.

Former Williamson County patrol deputy John Chandler testified about a report he had written that I had never heard of before. Chandler stated that he wrote the report after speaking with one of the Mortons’ neighbors, who said they saw a black van just a few doors down from the Morton home at 7:21 a.m. on the morning that Christine was killed. (Christine is believed to have been killed shortly after Michael left for work early that morning.) Chandler’s report—which Michael’s legal team never saw—seems potentially related to other neighbors’ accounts of a green van that was seen behind the Morton home around the time of the murder. These leads were never followed up on or passed along to Morton’s defense team.

Chandler also testified about another important clue that should have tipped investigators off to the fact that Christine was killed by an unknown intruder. He stated that a burglar alarm sounded at a house that just was a block away from the Mortons’ home—roughly a half block from where John Kirkpatrick found the bloody bandana—at 7:33 a.m. that same morning. (Chandler put this information in a report, but Michael’s defense team was never of its existence.) Because the home’s owners were out of town at the time and no one appeared to have actually entered the house, Williamson County sheriff’s deputies failed to investigate further.

As I listened to Chandler testify, I was stunned. How might the course of the investigation have gone differently if someone had followed up on these seemingly obvious leads? If fingerprints had been lifted from the exterior of that house, or if casts had been made of those footprints, would that have helped identify Christine’s killer? We’ll never know.

Testimony in the Norwood trial resumes on Thursday morning.

Related Content