SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — A stolen gun and DNA evidence link a drifter to the 1986 murder of an Austin woman whose husband was wrongfully convicted in her death and spent nearly 25 years in prison before being exonerated, prosecutors told jurors Tuesday during opening statements in the new trial.
Mark Alan Norwood, 58, is being tried for the beating death of Christine Morton, who was attacked in her north Austin home. Prosecutors allege Norwood beat and sexually assaulted the woman and stole a gun from her home, but defense attorneys say the DNA evidence easily could have been contaminated.
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 thanks to his long criminal history. He also has been indicted in a 1988 slaying of another Austin woman who lived near the Mortons.
Prosecutor Lisa Tanner told jurors that DNA testing wasn't available when the blood on the bandanna was initially tested in 1986. Authorities say the bandanna had Norwood's DNA as well as Christine Morton's blood and hair.
"The evidence was there all along," Tanner said. "The science just needed to catch up."
Tanner also revealed for the first time that investigators in 2011 had found a .45 Colt pistol that was missing from the Mortons' home at the time of the murder. Tanner said a man named Louis Wann who had hired Norwood to help remodel a house in Austin told investigators Norwood had sold him the gun in 1986. Norwood had worked in construction jobs near the Mortons' home around the time of the killing, according to investigators.
Michael Morton, who was the first witness to testify, said he learned that the gun, which was registered to him, was missing after he came home from work the day his wife was killed.
But Norwood's lawyer, Ariel Payan, told jurors that the DNA evidence allegedly linking his client to the murder could have been contaminated. Payan said the two issues jurors will need to consider in the trial were "contamination and liars."
"You have to weigh the pieces of evidence," he said during his opening statement.
The trial is being held in San Angelo after being moved from Williamson County, near Austin, because of publicity in the case. The Texas Attorney General's Office is handling the prosecution and is 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.