In the latest twist in a long-running Austin murder case, a state appeals court stepped in Thursday to reinstate murder charges against Dennis Davis in the 1985 cold case death of Natalie Antonetti.
The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that state District Judge David Wahlberg erred when he tossed out Davis’ indictment in 2015 because the continued prosecution violated his right to a speedy trial, largely because of delays caused when prosecutors failed to diligently pursue DNA testing.
The appeals court ruled, however, that much of the delay in Davis’ case was due to factors outside the prosecution’s control, including the appointment of new lawyers to defend Davis, a crowded docket for the trial judge and slow progress by the DNA testing lab.
Thursday’s decision provided the latest of many sharp turns since the investigation into Antonetti’s death was renewed in 2007. That’s when Davis’ estranged wife called Austin police to say that she believed Davis — a well-known owner of an Austin recording studio who had dated Antonetti before moving to Nashville to work with luminaries including Tim McGraw and Faith Hill — had confessed to the crime when he tearfully told her he had sinned against God and man.
She would later recant her story, but Davis was charged with murder in 2009, convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 36 years in prison in the beating death of Antonetti, 38, who had been hit at least five times in the head with a club or similar blunt object while she slept on the couch of her South Austin apartment.
Antonetti slipped into a coma and died 18 days later.
The 3rd Court of Appeals reversed Davis’ conviction in 2013, ruling that he must be given a new trial because his trial lawyer failed to introduce evidence pointing to another man as the likely killer — a man identified by a neighbor as peering through a window at Antonetti’s apartment complex while holding a club or small baton the morning of her assault.
As both sides prepared for a new trial, defense lawyers pressed to dismiss the murder charge, arguing that prosecutors dragged their feet on testing evidence and had taken other steps that added an unconstitutionally long delay in the case.
They also said Davis’ defense was hampered by several deaths, including of the lead police investigator and the neighbor who had reported the club-wielding stranger on the morning Antonetti was attacked.
In September 2015, Wahlberg agreed with defense lawyers and tossed out the murder charge. Travis County prosecutors appealed, setting up Thursday’s ruling.
In the meantime, the Antonetti investigation became wrapped up in the high-profile case of Michael Morton, who was freed in 2011 after spending almost 25 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, the murder of his wife, Christine.
The details of Antonetti’s October 1985 attack bore eerie similarities to two other attacks, also on Anglo brunettes in their 30s who were killed while they slept:
• Christine Morton, 31, was killed by eight blows to the head as she lay in bed at her southwestern Williamson County home in August 1986.
• Debra Masters Baker, 34, was beaten to death in bed at her North Austin home in January 1988 with six blows to the head, also with a blunt object that wasn’t recovered.
DNA evidence, developed over prosecutors’ objections during the long legal fight to exonerate Michael Morton, pointed to Mark Norwood, a former carpet installer who was convicted in 2013 of killing Christine Morton and convicted in 2016 of killing Baker and is serving consecutive life sentences.
DNA testing conducted in preparation for Davis’ second trial in Antonetti’s death also found no new leads, lawyers have said.
In his ruling tossing out the murder charge, Wahlberg criticized prosecutors for failing to conduct DNA testing before Davis’ first trial and for not quickly seeking tests when a new trial was ordered.
“The fact that this cold-case murder went to trial in 2011 without DNA testing during a massive public uproar over lack of DNA testing in the Michael Morton case is remarkable,” the judge wrote. “That DNA testing in this case was not accomplished promptly after the reversal is unreasonable and was a substantial cause of the delay in question.”
The 3rd Court of Appeals disagreed, returning the Davis case to Wahlberg for continued action.
Davis can ask the 3rd Court to reconsider the decision or appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court. His court-appointed appeals lawyer, however, declined to discuss the case Thursday.