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Court of Inquiry in Michael Morton Case Delayed

Justin Dehn / Callie Richmond via Texas Tribune

GEORGETOWN — The court of inquiry that will determine whether the former prosecutor who oversaw the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton could face criminal charges will be delayed until Feb. 4, a prosecutor with the Texas attorney general’s office said Monday.

News of the delay in the inquiry involving now-Williamson County State District Judge Ken Anderson — previously scheduled for Dec. 10 — came during a hearing in the case of Mark Norwood. Norwood is charged with murdering Michael Morton’s wife, Christine, at their North Austin home in 1986, a crime for which Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison. Lawyers for Norwood are seeking to delay his trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 7 in San Angelo.

Anderson is accused of deliberately hiding evidence during Morton’s 1987 trial that indicated Morton was innocent and that another person may have killed his wife. Anderson has strenuously denied allegations of wrongdoing in the Morton case.

At Monday’s hearing, Russell Hunt Jr., Norwood’s lawyer, told Williamson County State District Judge Burt Carnes that he needed additional time to hire a DNA expert to review the state expert’s work. Carnes asked Hunt to try to secure an expert this week. He did not decide on the motion for a continuance, and he scheduled another hearing on the issue for Friday.

Morton was released from prison last year after DNA testing linked Norwood to a blue bandana found near the scene of Christine Morton’s murder. DNA testing also linked Norwood to a pubic hair found at the scene of the 1988 murder of Debra Baker in North Austin. A Travis County jury indicted Norwood on charges in that case this month. Hunt has said his client maintains his innocence in both cases. 

Hunt said that an expert he contacted to review the DNA analysis was unable to work on the case, and that he needed additional time to find someone else who could examine the work.

“There are very few people who do what he does in the entire United States,” Hunt told Carnes. “It’s my understanding it took the state’s experts several months.”

Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general leading the case against Norwood, objected to the request for a continuance. She said that locating the appropriate DNA expert shouldn’t take long and that the state’s expert did not take months to complete his analysis.

“I think his motion is very, very premature,” Tanner said.

She added that if the trial were delayed in January, it would probably be impossible to have the trial until August 2013.

“There’s just no way we can get it done before August, and that is just way too long,” she said. 

Additionally, Tanner said, both the state and the defense would prefer to have Norwood’s trial complete before Anderson’s court of inquiry.

Lawyers for Morton have accused Anderson of hiding, among other things, police reports that neighbors saw a man in a green van — allegedly Norwood, who owned a van in the 1980s, according to court documents — had parked near the family’s home and walked into the lots behind it. They also allege that Anderson hid a transcript of a phone conversation in which Morton’s mother-in-law told police that her grandson had seen a “monster” with a big moustache attack his mother and beat her until she stopped crying.

Past police mug shots of Norwood show him with a large, dark moustache. Other evidence that Morton’s lawyers say was hidden includes a report from a San Antonio jewelry storeowner who reported to the Williamson County sheriff’s office that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used fraudulently after her death.

In a deposition last year, Anderson said that he was certain he would have told Morton's lawyers about evidence that pointed to their client's innocence.

Because the cases overlap, evidence and news coverage in the court of inquiry could make it more difficult for Norwood to get a fair trial with an untainted jury, Tanner said. 

“It’s in the best interest of the state as well as the defense” to have the trial sooner rather than later, Tanner argued in court.

Brandi Grissom joined the Tribune after four years at the El Paso Times, where she acted as a one-woman Capitol bureau during the last two legislative sessions. Grissom won the Associated Press Managing Editors First-Place Award in 2007 for using the Freedom of Information Act to report stories on a variety of government programs and entities, and the ACLU of Texas named her legislative reporter of the year in 2007 for her immigration reporting. She previously served as managing editor at The Daily Texan and has worked for the Alliance Times-Herald, the Taylor Daily Press, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung and The Associated Press. A native of Alliance, Neb., she has a degree in history from the University of Texas.
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