When Michael Morton’s wife, Christine, was bludgeoned to death in her bed on August 13, 1986, two items went missing from their home: her purse and his .45 pistol. The mystery of what happened to the two items was never solved. That fall, after a botched investigation by the Williamson County sheriff’s department, Michael was charged with Christine’s murder. At his trial, then-D.A. Ken Anderson told jurors that Michael had killed his wife and then covered his tracks by staging a burglary. “[Michael] grabbed his wife’s purse [and] one pistol out of his several guns, put it inside the purse…and then went to work,” Anderson told the jury. “On his way into work, he disposed of the purse [and] the gun.” Michael was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
On Tuesday, nearly 27 years after Christine was killed, Anderson was proven wrong when the pistol at last surfaced in a Tom Green County courtroom in San Angelo during the capital murder trial of Mark Alan Norwood. (The Norwood trial was moved to West Texas due to extensive pre-trial publicity.) A drifter with a long criminal record, Norwood was indicted for Christine’s murder in 2011—the year Michael was exonerated of the crime—after DNA testing performed on a bloody bandana discovered behind the Morton home found Norwood’s DNA intermingled with Christine’s blood.
Special prosecutor Lisa Tanner presented the gun in court Tuesday, handing it to her first witness—Michael Morton. Cradling the pistol in his hands, Michael smiled in recognition. “The custom sights, the extended safety, the magazine that’s beveled out,” he said, showing the jury the custom work he’d had done long ago to his .45 Colt Commander. “It’s my old pistol.”
Earlier that morning during opening statements, Tanner explained how the gun had been recovered in 2011 and traced back to Norwood. Investigators with the Texas Attorney General’s office, which is handling the case, had been conducting interviews with Norwood’s friends and associates when they paid an unexpected visit to a man in Nashville named Louis “Sonny” Wann. They did not tell Wann who or what they were investigating, Tanner told the jury, but during the course of a lengthy interview at the Nashville Police Department, Wann had mentioned that he owned a .45. He went on to say that it was his friend Mark Norwood who had sold it to him. He agreed to show the gun to investigators, who “almost fell over,” Tanner continued, when they saw that the serial number matched that of Michael’s missing gun. Tanner said that Wann had purchased the pistol shortly after Christine was killed, for fifty dollars.
Norwood, 58, sat impassively behind the defense table during opening arguments, his grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. Though he pressed a hearing device to his left ear so that he could hear most of the day’s testimony, he didn’t bother to do so as Tanner spent a full hour laying out her case for the jury. Instead, he stared ahead, striking an indifferent pose as Tanner told jurors that a host of facts—from his connection to the .45 to the forensic evidence on the bandana—would be sufficient to convict him. (Her questioning of prospective jurors on Monday suggested that there may also be testimony linking Norwood to the green van that was seen behind the Morton home around the time of the crime.) “The evidence was there all along,” she said of the DNA evidence. “Science just needed to catch up.”
But during the defense’s brief opening arguments, Norwood’s attorney Ariel Payan reminded jurors that as tragic as Christine’s death was, they could only convict Norwood if they found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Implying that the defense’s case would attempt to cast doubt on how carefully the bloody bandana had been collected, stored, and preserved over the previous quarter century, Payan said in conclusion, “Contamination and liars. That’s it. That’s all this case is.”
When Michael took the stand, sitting no more than fifteen feet from the man who is accused of murdering his wife, his voice grew thick with emotion. He gave short, precise answers as Tanner led him through a series of questions about his early courtship of Christine, their marriage, and the birth of their son, Eric. The last time Michael had been in the witness box testifying before a jury about his wife’s murder, he had been on trial. Now he was testifying for the state, reciting many of the same facts that he had said at his 1987 trial, but to different effect. During his entire time on the stand, he never glanced over at Norwood; he kept his gaze focused on Tanner or he addressed the jury directly. When he recounted how helpless he had felt after their son, Eric, had been born with a congenital heart defect, his eyes filled with tears. “I’ve been through a lot of rough stuff, but that was the worst,” he said, as Eric, who sat in the courtroom, watched his father intently.
“Rough stuff” was as close as Michael came to referencing the hell that he went through following Christine’s murder—that is, his arrest, wrongful conviction, and separation from his son during his nearly 25 years of incarceration. No mention was made by anyone, in fact, of Michael’s extraordinary journey from conviction to exoneration. Before the start of the trial, Judge Burt Carnes had ruled in favor of a motion filed by the state, requesting that in light of Michael’s exoneration, any testimony about his conviction or incarceration should be prohibited. (Such requests are usually granted when a witness’s criminal history is determined to be irrelevant or excessively prejudicial.) So even though the headline about the Norwood trial that was splashed across the front page of the San Angelo Standard Times on Tuesday morning read, “Jury Seated in ’86 Killing: 2nd Trial After Husband Exonerated,” no mention was ever made of his ordeal. Instead, Michael testified simply as any grieving husband would, focusing on the loss of his late wife.
Much of the rest of the day was taken up with the gruesome details of the crime scene. The Mortons’ next-door neighbor Elizabeth Gee—now Elizabeth Morgan—recounted finding Christine dead in her bed, covered in a comforter. She described how she had felt along the edge of the mattress until she had felt two feet, and then how her “EMT training kicked in,” and she kept patting the edge of the mattress until she found fingers, which led to a hand, and then a forearm. When she could not find a pulse, she had hurried out of the house. “I was terrified,” she said.
Anthony Arnold, who worked as an analyst for the DPS crime lab at the time of the murder, took the jury through the crime scene photos. By then, Michael had excused himself; because he could be called as a rebuttal witness later in the trial, he cannot hear the testimony of other witnesses and can’t be present in the courtroom. Eric stayed behind, and as the photographs of his mother were projected onto a large screen that faced the courtroom, including a photo that showed his mother’s face beaten beyond recognition, Eric leaned forward and put his head in his hands. He kept his head bowed for the remainder of Arnold’s testimony. The savagery of the crime was made vivid by the photos, which showed that Christine had been beaten so severely that bone fragments and tissue had been scattered around the room. The spray of blood on the walls had been so wide, Arnold recounted, that he had originally assumed she had been shot.
The last witness of the day was Dianne Kirkpatrick, the wife of Christine’s older brother, John. Dianne recounted how her husband had gone to the Morton home the day after the murder, determined to find clues that investigators might have overlooked. He focused his attention in particular on the area outside the house. “He started speaking to himself, saying ‘I’m going to get into the mind of the person who did this,’” Dianne said. “He was very focused. I was following close behind him.” She recounted how they had walked along the fenceline behind the Morton home and found one, possibly two, footprints. Then she said John had gone into the thick underbrush behind the house while she waited. When he returned, he was holding a blue bandana stained with blood. He was holding it at the very tip of a corner, and he admonished her not to touch it. Without putting it down, she said, he put it in a Ziploc bag and called the sheriff’s office.
The bloody bandana, of course, is what brought about Michael’s exoneration and Norwood’s indictment. It is the most critically important piece of evidence in the entire case. “Dianne, did anyone from law enforcement ever interview you about that day?” Tanner asked
Dianne shook her head. “No,” she said.
Testimony resumes Wednesday. The trial is expected to last through next week.