The Guilty Man
Michael Morton approached the witness box. It was a bright, clear morning in March, and a few dozen family members, journalists, and curious onlookers had gathered at the Tom Green County courthouse, in San Angelo, a grand, columned monument to justice built in 1928 at the height of an oil boom. Sunlight spilled into the courtroom, which had been meticulously restored to its original splendor, complete with a decorative relief on the ceiling of an enormous sunflower. Michael took his seat, his posture ramrod-straight. He glanced at the jurors on his left, then stared ahead, the crisp white collar of his dress shirt offsetting the rising color in his face.
That morning marked the second time in his life that Michael had been called to testify about the now infamous murder of his wife Christine. She had been bludgeoned to death in their bed early one morning in 1986, shortly after he had left for work. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office had zeroed in on Michael as a suspect from the start, and after a cursory investigation, he had been charged with her murder. The district attorney at the time, Ken Anderson, ignored evidence that Christine was killed by an unknown intruder, including a statement—which he never turned over to the defense—that the Mortons’ three-year-old son, Eric, had reported seeing “the big monster with the big mustache” kill his mother. Though no physical evidence tied Michael to the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he remained until the fall of 2011. That year, bloodstains on a blue bandana recovered near the crime scene were finally tested, revealing traces of not only Christine’s DNA but that of a man named Mark Norwood, a dishwasher in Bastrop with a long criminal history. Michael, whose DNA was not present, was exonerated. One month after Michael walked out of prison a free man, Norwood was arrested on capital murder charges.
Now, in an improbable reversal, Michael was no longer the accused—he was the first witness for the prosecution. The trial for Norwood, who had been sitting in the Williamson County jail for sixteen months, was finally underway. As Michael sat in the witness box, he surveyed the courtroom. A few steps away, slouched in a chair beside his lawyers, was Norwood. The tall, grizzled 58-year-old with the graying ponytail had made a conspicuous entrance when a sheriff’s deputy rolled him into the courthouse in a wheelchair. (He had previously complained to the judge that he was in a weakened state because he was unable to stomach the jail food.) Despite his supposed infirmity, Norwood had managed to rise and saunter to his seat at the defense table after the deputy unshackled him. He walked with an almost cartoonish swagger as he eyed the trial’s spectators, who included Eric, now 29. Norwood carried himself with the same aloofness he had shown in his old mug shots, where he had tilted his chin upward, looking down at the camera with a cold-eyed stare. His most distinctive feature back then, as in the present day, was a horseshoe-shaped mustache that draped over his upper lip.
As Michael began to tell his story to the jury, he looked apprehensive. Since his exoneration, he had proved himself to be an eloquent speaker—his moving testimony before the state Senate the previous week would end up securing a unanimous vote for a bill to improve the accountability of prosecutors—and he had grown accustomed to the spotlight, having been the subject of a documentary film and numerous media stories (including a two-part article last year in Texas Monthly). Michael’s case had received so much publicity, in fact, that Norwood’s trial had been moved to West Texas to ensure an impartial jury. Still, as special prosecutor Lisa Tanner posed a series of routine questions, Michael spoke haltingly. The last time he had testified about his wife’s murder, he had been eviscerated; Anderson had accused him of not just bludgeoning Christine beyond recognition but also masturbating over her dead body. The strain in Michael’s voice faded only when Tanner asked how he had met Christine. Brightening, he described their courtship in the mid-seventies at Stephen F. Austin State University. “We started dating,” he said, smiling. “And we started dating exclusively very soon after that.”
Tanner turned the subject to August 13, 1986, and Michael told the jury that he had last seen his wife alive when he left for work at around five-thirty in the morning, as she lay asleep in bed. He described returning home that afternoon to find his house surrounded by squad cars and crime-scene tape and being interrogated in the kitchen for hours. Tanner asked him to explain the layout of the house, and while Michael narrated, photos that investigators had taken that day were projected onto a large screen overhead. The images showed the living room and breakfast nook just as Michael had left them. Christine’s flip-flops remained where she had kicked them off under the kitchen table; a section of the newspaper, folded in half, rested on a wicker chair.
Tanner stopped short of showing a full view of the master bedroom, where the walls had been spattered with blood. Instead, she directed the jury’s gaze to the closet, where Michael explained that he had kept a gun, a .45 Colt Combat Commander, on the top shelf. A photo showed the empty spot on the shelf where the pistol should have been that day. The .45 automatic was not the murder weapon—Christine had been beaten with a piece of wood—but it seemed clear that whoever had killed her had also stolen the gun. It had disappeared on the day of the murder, Michael told the jury, and he had not seen it since.
Tanner reached for an evidence box and opened it, grasping the object inside. “Do you recognize this?” she asked matter-of-factly, removing a nickel-plated .45 automatic. She placed the pistol in his hands.
As Michael stared at the gun, his uneasiness vanished. He shook his head, breaking into a sudden grin. After he racked the slide back to make sure the firearm was unloaded, he held it up for the jury to see. “The custom sights, the extended safety, the magazine that’s beveled out,” he said, pointing to each detail of the specialty work he’d had done long ago. He met eyes with the jurors as he spoke. “It’s my old pistol,” he said.
The jury regarded him with what appeared to be both sympathy and fascination. One of the many strange aspects of The State of Texas v. Mark Alan Norwood was that at no point during the eight-day trial would the jurors hear that Michael himself had previously been found guilty of the crime, or that he had spent nearly 25 years behind bars. Before the trial, state district judge Burt Carnes had granted a request from the prosecution to exclude testimony about Michael’s conviction. Because his exoneration had wiped his record clean, he no longer had a criminal history, and the prosecution argued that any mention of his wrongful conviction might unfairly prejudice the jury against its star witness. To the people in the courtroom who were familiar with Michael’s odyssey, however, it was a mind-bending omission. In this alternate reality, he was only an observer to the events surrounding Christine’s murder, not the victim of a grotesque injustice that had derailed his life and allowed the real killer to go free.
Many of those who had followed the case assumed that Norwood would be found guilty. It seemed a foregone conclusion: the same blue bandana that had exonerated Michael clearly implicated Norwood. But Tanner, an assistant attorney general who specializes in trying complex, decades-old murder cases, knew a conviction was hardly a slam dunk. (The Texas attorney general’s office took over the case in 2011 at the request of then–Williamson County DA John Bradley, whose office had an obvious conflict of interest: its prosecutors, while fighting Michael’s efforts to prove his innocence, had discounted the very same DNA evidence that had led to Norwood’s arrest.) She understood that from its inception, the case had been bedeviled by bad police work: though sheriff’s deputies had canvassed the area behind the Morton home hours after Christine’s body was discovered, the bandana had not been recovered until the following day, when Christine’s brother, John Kirkpatrick, picked it up roughly one hundred yards behind the house at a construction site. A sheriff’s deputy named David Proctor had claimed that he too had spotted the bandana but had not picked it up because he saw nothing unusual about it, certainly no bloodstains. Tanner knew that Proctor’s report would allow the defense to put forth a theory: that Christine’s blood did not come into contact with the bandana until after her murder. (Indeed, the defense would speculate during the trial that Christine’s brother had gotten blood on his clothes while walking through the crime scene and then inadvertently contaminated the bandana.) In other words, even if Norwood—a carpet layer at the time who had worked at countless construction sites—had actually dropped the bandana, that did not make him the killer.
Other new evidence, uncovered by Michael’s attorneys in the years leading up to his exoneration, did not help Tanner’s case. One of the most tantalizing clues found in the sheriff’s files—a phone message from a witness who said Christine’s credit card had been used in San Antonio two days after the murder—had proved to be a dead end; Tanner discovered Christine’s wallet in an old evidence box, her credit cards still intact. Another lead—a police report about a green van seen behind the Morton home around the time of the murder—was too unreliable. Norwood had indeed owned a van, but it was tan and white. (The police report, based on the account of a man whose wife’s friend had spotted the vehicle, may have simply misstated the color of the van that she had actually seen.) Even Eric’s story about “the big monster with the big mustache,” which he had told his grandmother and which included vivid details that dovetailed with the crime scene, could not be presented to the jury. Eric had no memory of the murder or the man he had seen, and his grandmother would have been barred from repeating his comments because doing so constituted hearsay.
Tanner knew that she would have to build her case against Norwood by tying together several disparate pieces of evidence, and in her opening argument, before Michael took the stand, she introduced the story of the missing gun to the jury. Shortly before Norwood’s arrest, she explained, in the fall of 2011, detectives from the Austin Police Department’s cold-case unit had traveled to Nashville to pay an unexpected visit to a man named Louis Homer “Sonny” Wann Jr. The detectives did not tell Wann who or what they were investigating; they knew only that he and Norwood had been close friends at the time of Christine’s murder. Over the course of a lengthy interview, Tanner told the jury, Wann had talked about his gun collection. When the detectives asked if he happened to own a .45, he said he did, adding that his old friend Mark Norwood had sold it to him. Wann had shown the pistol to investigators, who “almost fell over,” Tanner said, when they saw that its serial number matched that of Michael’s missing gun. Wann had purchased the pistol from Norwood shortly after Christine was murdered, Tanner said, for $50.
The stolen gun implied that Norwood had been inside the Morton home on the day of the murder, making the defense’s theory that he had innocently dropped his bandana too fantastic to be believed. Yet, as Tanner knew, the state still faced significant hurdles in proving Norwood’s guilt. Not a single fingerprint of Norwood’s had been located at the crime scene—many of the prints that investigators had lifted were too smudged or incomplete to decipher—and no blood, semen, or hair of his had been recovered. Even Norwood’s connection to the .45 was assailable. Norwood’s court-appointed attorneys, seasoned trial lawyers Russell Hunt Jr. and Ariel Payan, could—and would—insinuate that it was Wann, not Norwood, who should be under suspicion, since it was Wann who had been in possession of the stolen pistol. No fingerprints tied Norwood to the gun, only Wann’s word. Any other old evidence that did exist, Norwood’s attorneys would contend, had been compromised. The state’s case, Payan told the jury during opening arguments, was based on nothing more than “contamination and liars.”
Yet despite the case’s shortcomings, Tanner was certain of Norwood’s guilt. What she knew—though the jury did not—was that he had recently been indicted for the 1988 murder of an Austin woman named Debra Baker, who had also been bludgeoned to death in her bed. Norwood’s DNA matched that of two pubic hairs recovered at the crime scene. (The match was not made until 2011 when Michael’s lawyers speculated that Christine and Debra might have been killed by the same person and convinced Austin police to submit the evidence for testing.) She believed that if she could put those facts before the jury and establish a connection between the two murders, she stood a better chance of winning a conviction.
Tanner’s problem was that proof of past crimes is usually inadmissible at trial; the presumption of innocence requires that jurors look solely at the facts of the particular case before them so that they will not be swayed by unrelated, and often incendiary, information. There are rare exceptions to this rule: Tanner would have to persuade the judge that Debra’s murder constituted a “signature crime”—a murder so similar to Christine’s that it could only have been committed by the same person. “I lost a lot of sleep over this case,” Tanner later told me. “All my worries—about the bandana, about Sonny Wann, about whether we could get the Baker case in—they all visited me at three o’clock in the morning.”
After Michael stepped down from the stand, he left the courtroom and headed across the hall. Because he could be called as a rebuttal witness, he was barred from hearing others’ testimony, and he would spend much of the remainder of the trial in the witness room. He was joined by a succession of people also waiting to take the stand, most of whom had testified for the prosecution at his 1987 trial: sheriff’s deputies, crime-scene analysts, neighbors, and even former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, whose erroneous time-of-death estimate had been used to secure Michael’s conviction. (Bayardo had testified that Christine died no later than 1:30 in the morning, four hours before Michael left for work; though his testimony on this matter had turned out to be grossly incorrect, Tanner had called Bayardo, who had conducted Christine’s autopsy, to establish the precise cause of death: eight brutal blows to the head.) Many of them cried when they spotted Michael, expressing their disbelief at what he had endured. A few apologized. Bayardo said only, “I would like to offer my sympathies for what happened to you,” and shook his hand.
Inside the courtroom, family members of both Michael and Christine sat to the right, behind the prosecution table. Eric was flanked by his wife, Maggie, and his maternal aunt, Marylee Kirkpatrick Olson, who had gained custody of him after his father went to prison and later adopted him. The three Olsons—Eric had taken Marylee’s name—formed a tight unit, their hands often clasped together as they listened to witnesses. During the most difficult testimony, they leaned together, arms slung around one another in solidarity. Behind them, keeping a courteous distance, sat Michael’s new wife, Cynthia. A pretty, down-to-earth woman with three grown children, she and Michael had met shortly after his release when they were introduced by his mother and sister, with whom Cynthia attended church. They had quickly grown close and married after a year of dating. Their wedding had taken place nine days before the trial.
The benches on the other side of the aisle, behind the defense table, were more sparsely filled. Norwood’s sister, a brusque woman named Connie Hoff, took copious notes in a black spiral notebook, frequently shaking her head when Tanner spoke. Norwood’s brother, Dale, a soft-spoken grocery store manager, listened quietly, his fingers knotted together in his lap. Their mother, Dorothy, kept vigil in the hallway, one hand resting on her walker. As a potential witness for the defense, she was required to stay out of the courtroom. She often buttonholed Michael to express her certainty that her son, too, had been wrongly accused.
Tanner had warned the jury that they would see disturbing images of the crime scene, and before the first day of testimony concluded, she called on a former Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab technician named Anthony Arnold to guide the jury through the gruesome slide show. Marylee rose and exited the courtroom, while Eric and Maggie stayed behind. With the unvarnished delivery of someone accustomed to testifying about horrific crimes, Arnold recounted how he had gone to the Morton home on the day of the murder and gathered evidence from the bedroom. Photos were projected onto the screen overhead as he spoke, beginning with images in which Christine’s body was covered with blankets, a blue suitcase, and a wicker basket. The photos, which had been taken as investigators peeled back the bedclothes, were shown sequentially. When her face was finally revealed, Eric leaned forward slowly in his seat until his head rested in his hands. He kept his head bowed for the remainder of Arnold’s testimony.
Christine’s face—the focus of the killer’s rage—had been beaten beyond recognition. Bone fragments had been scattered around the room, and one of her teeth had been knocked out. The spray of blood had been so wide, Arnold recounted, that he had originally assumed she had been shot. Norwood looked up at the crime-scene photos with no discernible emotion. When Arnold finished his testimony, Eric remained bent over, his hands covering his face.
The following morning, Christine’s brother, John Kirkpatrick, took the stand. A plainspoken marine biologist, John had left Texas for the Pacific Northwest days after his sister’s funeral and never returned. “I put this far out of my mind for so long,” he told the jury. So deep was his anguish over her murder that he and his wife had not told their grown children about the circumstances of her death until the previous year. He had been forced to revisit the past when advances in forensic science, and Michael’s pleas for DNA testing, made him the reluctant hero of the story. Had John not found the blue bandana, Michael would still be in prison and Norwood still at large. Debra Baker’s murder would have remained a cold case.
John’s lingering exasperation with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office was evident as he described arriving at the Morton home the day after his sister was killed. “I didn’t see any police,” he said. “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 gather information before leads went cold, he decided to try to retrace the killer’s footsteps. He started at the spot where he felt certain that the intruder had entered the house: the sliding-glass door in the dining area, which had been unlocked on the day of the murder. From there, he walked across the backyard to the privacy fence and noticed one, or maybe two, impressions in the ground where someone might have landed after jumping the fence. Then he walked around to the fence’s exterior and looked back toward the house. “You could see through the fence,” he said. “There were gaps in the boards where you could see Mike’s comings and goings, and when Chrissy was gone. This was how someone had cased it out.”
John told the jury that he had explored the densely wooded lot behind the fence until he reached a nearby construction site. It was there, by the side of the road, that he had spotted the blue bandana. “The moment I saw it, I knew it was important,” John recalled. 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,” he said. Jurors had already learned that he had experience collecting scientific evidence; Tanner had asked him a number of questions at the outset of his testimony about his past work taking soil samples for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “I collected it as cleanly as I could,” he said, describing how he picked up the bandana by one corner and carried it back into his sister’s home, where he placed it in a Ziploc bag and called investigators. A deputy had taken the bandana to the sheriff’s office, but this was before the advent of DNA testing in criminal cases, and John said he never heard mention of it again.
During John’s cross-examination—and later during questioning of the sheriff’s deputy who had taken the bandana and the DPS serologist who had tested it—Norwood’s attorneys tried mightily to show that the evidence had been mishandled or contaminated. But John rebutted the defense’s theory, that he had tromped through the crime scene and inadvertently transferred Christine’s blood onto the bandana, when he told the jury that he had not ventured far into the bloodstained bedroom. Still, the sheriff’s deputy, John Chandler, did give the defense an opening when he conceded that the bandana had been stored for years with another item John Kirkpatrick had found at the construction site, a napkin he picked up from a trash-strewn area where workers appeared to have eaten their lunches. And the serologist, Donna Stanley, acknowledged that she did not wear gloves when she collected evidence at the Morton home, a not-uncommon practice at the time but one that, seen from the present day, appeared questionable.
Tanner tried to head off the defense’s strategy by calling David Proctor, the sheriff’s deputy who had written the report claiming that he had seen the bandana free of blood. Unshaven and gravel-voiced, with a heavy-lidded stare, Proctor did not look well. He told Tanner that he was unemployed and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which stemmed from his seventeen-year career in law enforcement. He slept little, he said, and suffered from memory lapses. As far as the bandana was concerned, he said, “I have no clear memory of anything.” Tanner drew him out, getting him to tell the jury that he was a jailer at the time of the murder and was eager to earn a promotion, which was how he had found himself with a patrol officer on his day off, canvassing the area behind the Morton home. “Did anyone give you a hard time when a civilian later picked up a critical piece of evidence?” she pressed. “Why did you write an incredibly detailed report about an item you saw no blood on, to the exclusion of all the other items you saw no blood on?” Proctor had no ready answers. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug.
The implication, Tanner would insist during closing arguments, was that Proctor had written a false report. “Either he didn’t see the bandana and he’s covering his tracks,” she said, “or he saw it and he didn’t pick it up.” What he wrote in his report, she told the jurors, could never have happened.
Getting Sonny Wann to Texas was no easy task. After his initial interview with the Austin detectives, who grilled him about the murder—and, in an effort to flush out the truth, even hinted that they believed he was involved—he was wary. (Wann readily agreed to give a DNA sample, and no forensic evidence ever connected him to the crime.) Tanner also worried that his multiple health problems would prevent him from traveling to San Angelo for the trial. Determined to get his testimony before the jury, she persuaded the judge to allow Wann to give a videotaped deposition last September instead, citing his health issues. Though Wann agreed to do so, there was another roadblock: the deposition needed to be taken in Norwood’s presence, but Wann was afraid of flying and refused to get on a plane. So investigators flew to his home in Nashville and drove him to Georgetown and back, a journey of more than 1,600 miles. The deposition was recorded at the Williamson County courthouse with Norwood and attorneys from both sides present.
Jurors, who watched the recorded testimony on the fourth day of the trial, learned that Wann and Norwood had not spoken to each other in more than twenty years. Wann said he was working as a general contractor, running a diner, and doing “anything that would turn a dollar” when he first met Norwood in Austin in the mid-eighties. Norwood’s wife, Judy, was a waitress at the diner, Wann recalled, adding, “I didn’t keep it a secret that I thought she was real pretty.” Under Tanner’s questioning, the scruffy 67-year-old with a crooked grin revealed that he had driven Judy back to her native Tennessee when the Norwoods’ marriage fell apart in the early nineties. Wann had later followed her there, he said, but the relationship had since fizzled.
Wann said he would occasionally ask Norwood, who was always broke, to help him out with remodeling jobs. “I don’t think Mark ever said anything but that he needed money,” he cracked. (In fact, Norwood had been charged with no fewer than seven property crimes—many of them breaking into people’s homes—during the eighties alone, a fact jurors would never hear because the state was barred from mentioning previous arrests.) He and Norwood had been working on a home remodel when Norwood asked him if he wanted to buy a pistol and showed him a .45 Colt Combat Commander. Wann could not remember what year this conversation had taken place, but he repeated what he had first told the Austin detectives: he and Norwood had been working at the home of a local judge—a man he later remembered was named Guy Herman—whose wife had recently had triplets and who needed his garage converted into a bedroom. Though the pistol was worth far more than Norwood’s $50 asking price, Wann claimed to have taken his friend at his word when Norwood assured him it was not stolen.
If that seemed too unbelievable to be true, any concerns about Wann’s credibility were allayed when Travis County probate judge Guy Herman took the stand the following day. “I remember Sonny,” Herman proclaimed in a booming voice. “We had lunch a few times at his diner.” The triplets, he told the jury, were now grown. He even produced the old bid from Wann Construction, which showed that the remodeling job had spanned the late summer and early fall of 1986. Christine had been killed that August.
The greatest surprise of the trial came the next morning, when Judy Norwood was called to the stand. As she took a seat in the witness box, turning to face the courtroom, observers who were familiar with the case looked at each other in silent astonishment. Judy was a slender, attractive woman with fair skin and long brown hair—and she bore an unmistakable resemblance to both Christine Morton and Debra Baker.
Judy told the jury that in the mid-eighties, when the murder occurred, her then husband was often gone at night, and he grew irritated if she inquired where he had been. “He said not to ask questions,” she recalled in a tremulous voice. Even all these years later, she was visibly frightened in his presence; her hands shook as she told the jury that their marriage had never been one of equals. She was 14 when she met Norwood, in Nashville—he had worked construction jobs with her father—and he was 26. She ran off with him when she was 15, she said, and, at his urging, asked her parents to emancipate her so she could marry him. They wed when she was 16 and moved to Austin, where she lived far from her family and friends, often marooned at home with their infant son during Norwood’s unexplained absences. Judy seemed fragile, her eyes darting toward her ex-husband every now and then, and Tanner did not delve too deeply. She did not inquire about what had fueled Norwood’s constant need for cash. (He was convicted in 2008 in Riverside, California, for cocaine possession, but there were no drug-related arrests prior to that.) She did not ask Judy if he had ever been violent with her or probe what had broken up their marriage.
Before concluding, Tanner directed Judy’s attention to an old photo of her son, Thomas, which she projected onto the screen overhead. It was an endearing photo; the boy stood close to the camera, looking right into it, wearing a wide smile. Behind him, partially obscured, stood his father.
“How old is your son in that picture?” Tanner asked.
“Seven,” Judy replied.
“Who is that man behind him? Is that the defendant?”
Judy took a long time to answer. “Yes,” she said, beginning to cry.
“And what do you see in his pocket?” Tanner continued, gesturing toward the photo.
A few jurors leaned forward, straining to see. There, in the murky background, something dangled from Norwood’s left pocket. Judy pressed a hand to her mouth as tears streamed down her face. “A bandana,” she mumbled.
The bandana was red, not blue. But Tanner let the moment linger, leaving the photo up for the jury to contemplate.
Though the image of the red bandana was arresting, it proved only one thing: how circumstantial the evidence against Norwood actually was. Tanner admitted as much to Judge Carnes in a hearing that took place early that afternoon, the trial’s fifth day, after jurors were ushered out of the courtroom. She implored him to allow testimony about the Baker case to be heard. “I’ll be honest, Judge,” she said. “We need this.”
Norwood’s attorneys fought to keep the evidence out, arguing that it had a greater chance of prejudicing the jurors than it did of enlightening them. But Tanner repeatedly referenced a 2008 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling, Segundo v. Texas, which holds that other, nearly identical offenses can be admitted into evidence if they help to establish who committed the crime in question.
“ ‘It is the accretion of small, sometimes individually insignificant details that marks each crime as the handiwork or modus operandi of a single individual,’ ” Tanner said, quoting the ruling. She continued. “ ‘For example, suppose that three bank robberies are committed over a four-year period in different cities in which the robber used an antique silver crossbow. This scenario is so unusual that it is highly likely that each robbery was committed by the same person using the same antique silver crossbow. This is the “mark of Zorro” mode of proving identity; it is a remarkably unusual fact, in which a single detail suffices to establish identity.’ ”
Though there was no antique silver crossbow, the uncanny similarities between the Morton and Baker murders, Tanner argued, established that they could only have been committed by the same person—a fact that made the Baker case admissible. To prove her point, Tanner reeled off a long list of otherwise inexplicable parallels. Both women were killed on the thirteenth of the month, on Wednesdays, she said. Both had been bludgeoned to death with blunt objects in their beds: Christine with eight blows to her head, Debra with at least six. Neither had been raped. The perpetrator had entered each home from the back, through an unlocked sliding-glass door, as the women slept. He had stolen one big-ticket item—Michael’s .45 and, from the Baker home, a VCR—but had not taken jewelry or other valuables that were in plain sight. Both women were found with small defensive wounds on their left arms, as if they had awoken and raised their arms to shield themselves. Most peculiar of all was a detail that Tanner had noticed while looking at the crime-scene photos: before the killer had slipped out of their homes, he had placed pillows over his victims’ faces. “These are strange, strange crimes,” Tanner told the judge. “But they are the same strange, strange crime.”
After the hour-long hearing, Carnes announced that he would allow testimony about the Baker murder to be heard. Jurors would not be asked to render a verdict in the Baker case, Carnes instructed them when they were back in the courtroom, but they could weigh the evidence when deliberating whether or not Norwood had killed Christine. The decision would prove to be a turning point, as the next two days became a trial within a trial about Debra’s murder, the facts of which eerily echoed Christine’s. Debra’s 89-year-old mother, Gertrude Masters, spoke of finding her daughter savagely beaten in bed. More than a dozen other witnesses—police detectives, crime-scene analysts, DNA experts, and even Bayardo, in a reprise performance—also took the stand.
The defense sought to explain away the two pubic hairs of Norwood’s that were found inside Debra’s home by suggesting that in the weeks preceding her death, she might have invited Norwood over. Until shortly before the murder, he had lived just a block away. “Debbie was extremely friendly, wasn’t she?” Ariel Payan asked her sister Lisa Masters Conn. “She liked to talk to the neighbors?” But the implication that Debra, who was newly separated from her husband, had willingly had Norwood over and perhaps been intimate with him, did not seem to sit well with the female members of the jury, several of whom crossed their arms and looked at Payan with hardened stares.
When closing arguments commenced, on the eighth day of the trial, Michael was finally allowed back into the courtroom. Relieved, he slid onto the bench beside the Olsons, motioning for Cynthia to sit beside him. Behind him were Debra’s two grown children, Jesse and Caitlin, who were seven and three when their mother was killed. They sat quietly beside their father, Phillip, who had been the focus early on of the police investigation into Debra’s death and had been cleared of suspicion six weeks later. By then, other leads had gone cold.
The defense had called only three witnesses to the stand before resting its case: Dorothy Norwood, who had cast her son as a hard worker and loving family man, and Wann’s ex-wife and estranged daughter, who both described Wann as a habitual liar. Russell Hunt capitalized on that idea in an impassioned summation. “Am I saying that Sonny Wann did this?” he asked the jury. “Maybe? Possibly? We know that Sonny Wann had the gun in his hands twenty-six years later.” This drew a broad smile from Norwood, who had until then hardly acknowledged his attorneys’ existence. Payan argued that the prosecution’s reliance on the Baker evidence exposed just how weak the state’s case actually was. “Try this case,” he beseeched them. “If you have any reasonable doubt, you must acquit.”
But the day belonged to Tanner, who asked the jury to ignore “theories concocted in the minds of lawyers to explain away damning facts.” She derided the defense’s notion that John Kirkpatrick had contaminated the bandana, pointing out that Christine’s blood would have dried long before her brother walked through the house. As for the defense’s attempts to besmirch Wann’s character, she told the jury, “They can throw the word ‘liar’ around, but there’s another word: ‘corroboration.’ ” In closing, she said, “this case is about science, and science is truth. It doesn’t get caught up in harebrained theories of attorneys, or the passage of time, or the fading of memories. The evidence has been there all along. It’s just been waiting for the science to catch up with it so that it could tell you what happened and make you understand.”
As she spoke to the seven women and five men who would return a verdict, she looked each one of them squarely in the eye. “It’s been twenty-six long years—for Mike, for Eric, for the rest of their family,” she said, gesturing toward Michael and the Olsons. Then she pointed at Norwood. “And now you can see, you can see pure evil,” she said, her voice rising. “Don’t let it walk out of here with you.”
The verdict came quickly that afternoon. But its arrival—more than a quarter century too late—felt oddly anticlimactic. “We find the defendant guilty of capital murder,” Carnes announced, reading the jury’s decision aloud as spectators on both sides of the aisle began to weep. The judge informed Norwood that he would receive an automatic life sentence; at the request of Michael and the Olsons, the jury had not been given the option of handing him a death sentence. Norwood glanced over his shoulder at his family and shrugged. And then, abruptly, it was all over. If anyone had come looking for insight into Norwood or his motive for killing Christine, the trial offered few answers, if any. (“We checked everywhere he had lived for other, similar unsolved murders and found nothing,” Tanner later told me.) Norwood was silent as he was led away in handcuffs.
Everyone who had followed the Morton case down its long and tortuous path had hoped for a happy ending, and on that warm spring day, it seemed to have arrived. Finally, “the big monster with the big mustache”—who had brutalized and killed Christine, who had set in motion the series of events that led to Michael’s false conviction, who had robbed their little boy of both his parents, and who is alleged to have murdered another woman—was behind bars.
But outside the courthouse, as reporters and TV cameramen closed in around Michael, angling for a better view, he stood alone. The Olsons had slipped away as soon as the verdict was read. Throughout the trial, it had been plain to see the gulf that existed between Michael and Eric; they had arrived and departed separately, and most days Eric had gone his own way when the court recessed for lunch. Like the rest of his family, he had come to understand that his father was innocent, but the deep-seated sense of mistrust that Michael’s conviction had instilled in them for more than two decades had proved hard to shake. Despite his and Michael’s attempts to forge a relationship after a long estrangement, their interactions remained strained. Eric was circumspect about it, saying only that Michael’s decision to marry so close to the trial had been hurtful. “The timing was difficult, because we felt that the focus should be on my mother,” he told me one afternoon at the courthouse. “It made me realize that it’s going to take longer than a year to erase twenty-five years of—” He searched for the right words. “No connection.”
The criminal justice system had exonerated Michael and, at long last, brought Christine’s killer to justice. Later this year, Travis County prosecutors are expected to try Norwood for Debra Baker’s murder. And Ken Anderson, the former Williamson County DA, is facing the possibility of jail time. After a court of inquiry investigated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct this past February, a judge ruled that Anderson, now a sitting judge, will face criminal contempt and tampering charges for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence. Yet there was one thing the justice system had not been able to rectify: it could not put a family back together.
As Michael stood at the foot of the courthouse steps that afternoon and looked out at the scrum of reporters, a man broke through the crowd. It was Norwood’s brother, Dale. He reached out to embrace Michael, looking stricken. “I’m sorry,” he choked as he rested his head on Michael’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
For more on the history of the Michael Morton case, click here.