Twenty-six years after Christine Morton was bludgeoned to death in her bed, her killer was finally brought to justice Wednesday, when Mark Alan Norwood was found guilty of capital murder.
The turning point in the eight-day trial, however, came the previous Friday at 1:50 p.m., when Williamson County district judge Burt Carnes decided to allow the jury to hear evidence of another, eerily similar murder: the 1988 bludgeoning death of Debra Masters Baker. (The jury would never learn that Norwood has been indicted for the crime, but they did learn that his DNA—specifically, two of his pubic hairs—were found at the murder scene.) Usually, a defendant’s other crimes—especially those that have not yet been prosecuted—are never presented to a jury. But assistant attorney general Lisa Tanner convinced the judge that the Baker murder was highly relevant because the characteristics of both crimes were so distinctly similar. In a hearing before the judge, she cited a 2008 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling, Segundo v. Texas, which states:
It is the accretion of small, sometimes individually insignificant, details that marks each crime as the handiwork or modus operandi of a single individual…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.
Over the defense’s objections, Carnes granted the state’s motion to introduce evidence in the Baker case as a means of determining the identity of Christine Morton’s killer, finding that introducing information about the case was prejudicial but also “highly probative.” What followed, for two full days of testimony, was in essence a trial-within-a-trial, with dozens of witnesses called to the stand to describe the Baker murder. The similarities between the two crimes were startling. Both victims were in their thirties, had three-year-old children, and long brown hair. They were both murdered on the thirteenth of the month, on Wednesdays, in their water beds. The perpetrator had entered both homes through unlocked, sliding-glass doors at the rear of the house, had emptied the women’s purses, and had stolen the cash inside. The killer had also stolen one big-ticket item—in the Morton case, a .45 Colt Commander, and in the Baker case, a VCR—while leaving jewelry that was out in the open undisturbed. Both women had been bludgeoned to death—Christine with eight blows to her head, Debra with at least six blows to her head. Both had small “defensive wounds,” or injuries that resulted from attempts to fend off their attacker, on their left arms. They were both found with pillows over their faces. Neither had been sexually assaulted.
Despite the remarkable similarities in the cases, Norwood’s attorneys, Russell Hunt and Ariel Payan, did a skillful job of suggesting that the evidence in each case, which was more than a quarter-century old, could have been compromised or cross-contaminated. They pointed to the stark differences between forensic evidence collection in the mid-eighties versus now. (Photos shown to the jury revealed that the DPS Crime Lab technicians who gathered evidence at the Morton home did not so much as wear gloves.) And though they did not provide an alibi for Norwood, they sought to introduce reasonable doubt at every turn.
During closing arguments on Wednesday, Norwood’s attorneys suggested that the blue bandana that had his DNA and Christine’s blood on it had, in fact, been stained with her blood following the murder, when her brother, John Kirkpatrick, who testified last week, found it behind the house. They suggested that he had walked through the bloody crime scene first, getting blood on his clothes, and had then accidentally contaminated the bandana when it brushed against his clothes. They also sought to explain away the fact that Norwood had sold a .45 Colt Commander that was stolen from the Morton home to his former boss, Louis “Sonny” Wann Jr, by questioning Wann’s truthfulness and casting suspicion on Wann himself. “Am I saying Sonny Wann did this?” Hunt asked. “Certainly? Possibly? We know that Sonny Wann had the gun in his hands twenty-six years later.”
But Wednesday belonged to Tanner, who implored the jury to ignore “theories concocted in the minds of lawyers to explain away damning facts.” She derided the defense’s theory that Kirkpatrick had gotten blood on the bandana after the murder. “Remember this,” she told the jury. “Christine was murdered in the very early morning hours. When did John find the bandana? Some twenty-eight to thirty hours later. Blood dries, folks. Common sense tells you that John was not tromping around in pools of blood.” As for the defense’s attempts to stain Wann’s character, she added, “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 and 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…It’s been twenty-six long years—for Mike, for Eric, for the rest of their family. And now you can see. You can see pure evil. You have seen it. Don’t let it walk out of here with you.”
Michael Morton sat in the courtroom gallery behind her, looking stricken. Eric listened as he wiped away tears. “Based on science, based on evidence, don’t disappoint them,” Tanner implored the jurors.
The jury had not heard many critical facts that are familiar to people who have read my two-part series on this case. Incredibly, at the request of the state, they would never learn that Michael had been wrongly convicted of Christine’s murder. And like jurors in Michael’s trial, they would never hear that neighbors had seen a man in a green van behind the Morton home on the day of the murder, or that Eric had seen “a big monster with a big mustache” murder his mother. Prosecutors had only been able to establish that Norwood had owned a white van. And while Eric’s account of the murder was pivotal in helping to exonerate his father, it did not definitively describe his mother’s killer—though Norwood did have a mustache at the time of Christine’s murder.
But in the end, none of that mattered. After a little more than three hours of deliberation, the jury found Norwood guilty. At the request of Michael, Eric, and Christine’s sister, Marylee, the jury was not given the option of sentencing Norwood to death. He was instead given an automatic life sentence. As the verdict was read by the judge, both Christine Morton’s family and Debra Baker’s family embraced and wept.
Outside the courthouse, Michael soberly told the assembled reporters, “It’s not a celebration, it’s not a happy day,” he said. “There’s that feeling of ‘finally.’” Enough time had passed since Christine’s murder, he added, that they were at peace. “It has helped us heal, so we can go on without much animosity or anger,” he said. Afterward, Norwood’s brother, Dale, who has attended every day of the trial, approached Michael and reached out for him. “I’m sorry,” he choked out as he rested his head against Michael’s. “I’m so sorry.”