On Friday, a Travis County (TX) jury found Mark Norwood, 62, guilty of the 1988 bludgeoning murder of Debra Baker. Norwood was at liberty to commit Debra’s murder, because he escaped justice in the similar murder of Christine Morton two years earlier. Both victims lived in the Austin area.
Christine’s husband, Michael, was wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Among the many sad outcomes of this wrongful conviction was that the Morton’s three-year-old son Eric lost both his mother and, for 25 years, a normal relationship with his father.
If evidence supporting Michael Morton’s innocence had been shared with the defense, which is required of prosecutors, it is less likely he would have been convicted. The jury did not know that a bloody bandana was found the day after Christine’s murder outside the Morton home along a likely escape route from the property.
The jury didn’t know that little Eric was present during his mother’s murder. He told his grandmother his father wasn’t home and “a monster” was hurting his mommy.
The jury didn’t know that neighbors witnessed a green van on several occasions parked near the Morton home. In retrospect, they wondered if the driver was casing the home.
If the defense had known these things, Morton may have mounted a successful defense, perhaps enabling the evidence to lead to the real perpetrator.
While no physical evidence tied Michael to the crime, the jury heard the medical examiner testify incorrectly that Christine Morton was likely killed no later than 1:15 a.m., undermining the defense’s claim that Christine was murdered after Michael went to work at around 5:30 a.m.
Michael Morton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but he always proclaimed his innocence. His appeal was denied.
In 2005, the law firm of Raley & Bowick (Houston) working with the Innocence Project requested DNA testing on crime scene evidence, including the bloody bandana. The District Attorney of Williamson County opposed the testing for years, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals finally granted it in 2010.
DNA testing of the bandana revealed the blood of Christine Morton. It also linked to seasoned felon Mark Norwood. This evidence prompted the release and exoneration of Michael Morton and the 2013 conviction of Mark Norwood. He received a life sentence.
It was also discovered that a hair left at the very similar murder of Debra Baker, another young mother killed two years after Christine Morton’s murder, also linked to Norwood, which led to his conviction of Baker’s murder on Friday.
In 2013, in a rare instance of holding a prosecutor accountable, a judge found that Ken Anderson — the prosecutor in the Morton case, who was by then serving as a judge himself — should be charged with criminal contempt and tampering. This resulted in Anderson’s resignation, disbarment, and his serving four days in jail.
The “collateral damage” of wrongful convictions — a real and certain threat to public safety — was tragically highlighted in the murder of Debra Baker.
The National Registry of Exonerations attributed Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction to false or misleading forensic evidence and official misconduct. As is the case in many miscarriages, there is a strong argument that this conviction error could have been prevented.
Our criminal justice system can do much better. This would require broad adoption of recommended best practices in investigative procedures; full compliance with prosecutorial requirements to share exculpatory evidence with the defense; implementation of recommendations to elevate the reliability of forensic science; and other measures.
We lack only the national will to achieve more accurate and fair criminal justice. A meaningful legacy of the lives of Christine Morton and Debra Baker would be our commitment, at long last, to the best justice system within our capabilities, one worthy of a great nation.