New arrest in Texas wrongful conviction case

November 9, 2011 - 8:25 PM
Texas Prisoner Freed Suspect

In this booking Nov. 9, 2011, booking mugshot provided by the Williamson County Sheriff's Office, Mark Alan Norwood, 57, is shown. Authorities have identified Norwood as a new suspect who has been arrested in the murder of a Texas woman whose husband was wrongfully convicted of the slaying and spent nearly 25 years in prison before DNA evidence led to his release. (AP Photo/Williamson County Sheriff's Office)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Michael Morton spent nearly a quarter century in prison for his wife's murder before authorities realized they had the wrong man and set him free. Now police believe they have finally found the real killer.

The man suspected of beating Christine Morton to death in her bed in Austin in August 1986 — and linked to the slaying of another woman under chillingly similar circumstances while Morton was wrongly imprisoned — was arrested Wednesday, Morton's attorney, John Raley, told The Associated Press. It's the latest twist in a case that has prompted a separate investigation into the former prosecutor turned judge. Morton's attorneys claim the prosecutor withheld evidence at Morton's trial that could have led police to the suspect decades earlier and prevented him from striking again.

The man arrested Wednesday was Mark Alan Norwood, 57, who public records show worked as a carpet layer in the Austin area in 1986. He is being held on a capital murder charge in Williamson County, north of Austin, where the Morton slaying occurred, according to the Williamson County sheriff's office.

Jail records did not list an attorney for Norwood and the sheriff's office said it had no information on whether he had a lawyer.

Norwood has been charged in only the Morton slaying, but the daughter of the second victim said investigators also informed her of the arrest.

"After so many years, it kind of stops being sad and just becomes a happy moment," said Caitlin Baker, whose mother, Debra Masters Baker, was beaten to death in her bed in January 1988. She lived not far from the Mortons. At one point, Norwood lived closed to her.

"We're just really happy and unbelievably thankful, and ready for the case to move forward," Baker said.

Authorities discovered a connection in the two cases after Raley, teamed up with the New York-based Innocence Project and spent years battling for additional testing of a bloody bandanna found near the Morton home using techniques not available in 1987. DNA from that bandanna matched that of a hair discovered at the scene of the Baker slaying.

But Morton's attorneys now allege their client may never have been convicted if the prosecutor who tried the case, Ken Anderson, hadn't concealed key evidence from the defense — potentially leaving the true killer free to kill Baker.

Morton has declined to be interviewed since his release Oct. 4. A ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturning his murder conviction won't formally take effect until later this month.

Raley said he spoke to Morton after hearing about Wednesday's arrest.

"Michael is happy and numb at the same time. He knows this is a good day for justice, but it comes at the end of a long tortuous route that has cost him dearly," Raley said.

Morton has always maintained his innocence, even when offered an early release if he expressed remorse for his crime. He said that on the morning of the slaying, he left his wife and the couple's 3-year-old son to head to work early at an Austin Safeway where he was an inventory manager. He said an intruder must have killed her.

The Baker case, meanwhile, languished unsolved for more than two decades. Morton's release brought some new hope, but Caitlin Baker continued to say that for her mother's case, nothing had changed.

On Wednesday, there was finally a major break — though she said that for her and her family, "closure's not even an option."

"We may get answers, but I don't think they'll be acceptable," Baker said. "They're never going to be enough."

Anderson, who was appointed as a state district judge in 2002 by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, recently spent more than six hours answering questions from Morton's attorneys during a closed-door deposition as part of an investigation into the allegations of concealed evidence. Anderson has not returned repeated calls from the AP about the Morton case.

Among the evidence Morton's lawyers say Anderson concealed from the defense was a statement that Christine Morton's mother gave to the lead investigator, police Sgt. Don Wood. She told Wood that her grandson said he watched his mother get killed and that her attacker was a "monster," not his father, as police suspected. She implored Wood to try to find this monster.

They say Anderson also didn't tell Morton's defense lawyers that Christine Morton's credit card was used in San Antonio two days after her death and that a forged check in her name was cashed several days later. Michael Morton testified during his trial that his wife's purse had been taken from the home.

The State Bar of Texas has also begun investigating allegations of wrongdoing by Anderson. It licenses attorneys in Texas and can discipline them, though most attorneys say investigations of judges are rare.

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Lozano reported from Houston.