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Tears and Relief After Norwood Found Guilty

Callie Richmond, Texas Tribune

SAN ANGELO — Family members of Christine Morton and Debra Baker filled a Tom Green County courtroom with tearful hugs and relieved smiles on Wednesday after a jury found Mark Alan Norwood guilty of murder.

Norwood, 58, received an automatic life sentence after the jury decided he was guilty of the Aug. 13, 1986 killing of Christine Morton, who was beaten to death in her North Austin home. 

Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder. He was released from prison and exonerated in 2011 after DNA testing linked his wife’s death and the murder of Debra Baker to Norwood. Morton called the verdict a "mixed bag."

"It's not a time to celebrate. It's not a happy day," Morton said outside of the courthouse. "It's a big exhalation."

Norwood, as he had through most of the trial, displayed little visible reaction as the verdict was read. Norwood's relatives, who had been in the courtroom for most of the trial, said they were not surprised by the verdict, because they said the trial had been one-sided. Dorothy Norwood said her son was innocent.

"I've learned the Texas justice system is pretty much broken," she said. "I think it's beyond repair really."

Connie Hoff, Norwood's sister, said there would be an immediate appeal of the jury's verdict. Her family, she said, is now experiencing the same thing Michael Morton’s family did when he was wrongly convicted in 1987.

“History is repeating itself,” she said.

The jury deliberated for less than four hours after prosecutors and Norwood's defense lawyers presented their closing arguments. Their remarks encapsulated the six days of testimony jurors heard. Prosecutors said that Norwood was linked to Christine Morton’s murder both by a bandana found near the crime scene that contained DNA from the victim and from the former Bastrop dishwasher and by a gun that they said he stole from the Morton home and then sold to another man. They also alleged that Norwood committed a nearly identical crime a year-and-a-half later, the Jan. 13, 1988 murder in Austin of Debra Baker, who was also beaten to death in her bed.

In her closing arguments to the jury, special prosecutor Lisa Tanner made an emotional plea to the 12 jurors, seven of whom were women, reminding them of the horror of the crimes she said Norwood committed — young mothers helplessly trying to defend themselves against the blows of an intruder who had silently watched their homes before entering in the dark of the morning and beating them to death.

"We, as women, when we get out of our cars at night we look all around, we check our surroundings," said Tanner, an assistant attorney general. "When we go into our home, when we put our heads on our pillows, we expect to be safe."

She told the jury that the Morton family had waited 26 years for justice.

“You have seen pure evil, you have seen evil in this courtroom,” she said. “Don't make them wait any longer. Don't let evil walk out of here with you.”

In the defense’s closing arguments, lawyers Russell Hunt, Jr. and Ariel Payan told the jury that there were too many holes in the state’s case. Their defense strategy focused on raising questions about potential contamination of the DNA evidence and on challenging the credibility of Louis Homer "Sonny" Wann Jr., a key state witness. Wann told the jury he purchased from Norwood a .45-caliber gun that was stolen from the Morton’s home. 

During the trial, Hunt and Payan asked pointed questions of the state's witnesses who testified about DNA evidence and about the crime scene investigation, but the lawyers did not call any of their own witnesses to discuss the biological material in the case. Instead, Norwood's lawyers called only three witnesses, whose testimony was focused largely on undermining Wann's trustworthiness.

They told jurors in closing arguments that investigators in 1986 had not taken the appropriate precautions to safeguard against contamination of evidence at the Morton crime scene. And they called Wann a liar and a thief.

Payan repeated the phrase he told jurors during opening statements last week. The state's case against Norwood, he said, was based on "contamination and liars." 

"There are only two pieces of evidence in this case," Payan told the jury. And he cautioned them against trusting the decades-old memories of witnesses.

"That's the problem with this case," he said. "It's 26 years old, and the memory of now clouds our memories of then."

Hunt showed the jury a photo of Norwood from the 1980s with his then-wife Judy Norwood and their young son, Thomas Alan Norwood. He told them Norwood was a veteran and a family man. The state's evidence, he said, was weak.

“They absolutely cannot prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hunt said. “The only reasonable, the only appropriate, verdict in this case is not guilty.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement that with the day's guilty verdict, "a lifelong dose of long-overdue justice has finally been served on Mark Alan Norwood."

"We can only hope that today's verdict provides some much-deserved, but woefully delayed, justice for a family that suffered so terribly for so long," he said. 

Tanner said that Norwood was sentenced under 1986 laws which means that he will be eligible for parole in 15 years. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty for Norwood at the request of Christine Morton's family, and Texas' life without parole statute did not exist in 1986.

Norwood still faces murder charges in Travis County for the 1988 murder of Baker, whose family was in the courtroom for the verdict. The trial for Christine Morton’s murder was moved to San Angelo because of extensive media coverage of the case in Central Texas.

Baker’s mother Gertrude Masters, her sister Lisa Conn, her husband Phillip Baker and their children Caitlin and Jesse Baker, exchanged hugs and expressed satisfaction with the outcome, but now await a trial in her case, which had been considered cold until 2011. That summer, DNA evidence identified in the Morton case helped police to identify Norwood’s DNA in hair found at the scene of Baker’s murder.

The Bakers shared hugs and wiped away tears on Wednesday with Christine Morton’s family, including Michael Morton and his wife Cynthia; Christine Morton’s sister, Marylee Kirkpatrick, the Morton’s son Eric Olson — who Kirkpatrick raised after his mother’s death and his father’s imprisonment — and his wife Maggie.

“We’re so happy that Christine finally has justice,” said Caitlin Baker, who was 3 when her mother died. “She is so clearly loved by all who knew her, and we wish we had had that privilege as well.”

Outside of the courthouse, Michael Morton exchanged a hug with Dorothy Norwood, who told the exoneree she was glad to have met him. She told reporters that she and Morton shared a faith in God.

"You feel a common spirit between some people," she said.

In a statement late Wednesday evening, Marylee Kirkpatrick said the second trial for her sister's murder had been difficult for the family, and she said they were saddened that Michael Morton had spent decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

"We hope that Christine can now finally be at rest and we, therefore, can have lasting peace," she said.

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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