SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) – A West Texas jury on Wednesday convicted a man for the murder of an Austin woman whose husband was wrongfully convicted of her slaying and spent nearly 25 years in prison before being exonerated.
Jurors in San Angelo found Mark Alan Norwood guilty of capital murder for the 1986 killing of Christine Morton, who was attacked in her north Austin home. Prosecutors said Norwood beat the woman to death.
He was sentenced to life in prison, but is eligible for parole after 15 years. Jurors deliberated for about three hours before returning their verdict.
Morton’s husband, Michael, was initially convicted in her death in 1987, but he was exonerated and freed in 2011 after new DNA testing was done on a bloody bandanna found near the couple’s home. Investigators said the DNA evidence led them to Norwood, whose DNA was in a national database as a result of his long criminal history.
Michael Morton hugged Norwood’s mother outside the courtroom after the trial. He also hugged Norwood’s brother, Dale.
Morton told the Austin American-Statesman that what he was feeling was “a mixed bag. It’s not a celebration, and it’s not a happy day.”
“Michael and his family are pleased that justice, at last, has been provided for the memory of Christine Morton,” John Raley, Morton’s Houston-based attorney, said in an email. Raley spent years working for free on the case after teaming up with the Innocence Project.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office handled Norwood’s prosecution, said no verdict can bring back Christine Morton’s life or “recover the devastating years that her husband Michael Morton spent unjustly imprisoned for her murder.”
“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,” Abbott said in a statement.
Norwood’s sister, Connie Hoff, said her brother had been railroaded because prosecutors had introduced evidence from the 1988 death of Debra Masters Baker in Austin during the trial. Norwood, 58, also has been charged with capital murder in the death of Baker, who lived near the Mortons.
Hoff said her family is now going through what the Morton family went through when he was convicted.
“This is history repeating itself,” she told the American-Statesman.
During closing arguments earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Lisa Tanner told jurors they need to convict Norwood “and not let evil walk out of this room with you.”
One of Norwood’s lawyers, Ariel Payan, suggested to jurors during closing arguments that the evidence gathered from the bandanna was contaminated.
DNA testing wasn’t available when the blood on the bandanna was initially tested in 1986. The testing wasn’t done until Michael Morton’s attorneys spent years lobbying for it.
Prosecutors also told jurors that a gun Norwood stole from the Mortons’ home and later sold linked him to the murder. Morton testified at the trial, telling jurors about the missing gun.
The trial was held in San Angelo after being moved from Williamson County, near Austin, because of publicity in the case. The Texas Attorney General’s Office was not seeking the death penalty.
Last month, a special hearing known as a court of inquiry was held to examine whether state District Judge Ken Anderson acted improperly in 1987 when, as Williamson County district attorney, he prosecuted Michael Morton. Morton’s lawyers have accused Anderson of intentionally hiding evidence.
Anderson has denied any wrongdoing. A decision by a judge on whether Anderson should face criminal charges in the case might come next month. Anderson also is being sued by the State Bar of Texas for his conduct in the Morton case.
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