- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
A state appeals court has upheld the capital murder conviction and life sentence given to Mark Alan Norwood in the 1988 death of Debra Baker, an Austin woman whose case went unsolved for more than two decades until efforts to exonerate Michael Morton turned up evidence linking Norwood to the deaths of Baker and Morton’s wife.
Norwood argued that his trial judge improperly allowed jurors to hear evidence about previous crimes, including his conviction in the beating death of Christine Morton, who had been killed 17 months before Baker also was beaten to death.
The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected Norwood’s argument that the two murders were not sufficiently similar to be considered “signature crimes” likely to have been committed by the same person.
“The victims were both Caucasian women in their 30s with long brown hair, were attacked and killed in their beds, died from blunt-force trauma to their heads after being hit six or eight times, had defensive wounds, were covered with pillows and comforters after the assault, and were found with pillows on their heads,” the appeals court said in a ruling delivered Friday.
Items also were stolen from both homes, the opinion by Justice David Puryear noted.
Michael Morton was freed after serving almost 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder after DNA evidence — collected before modern testing techniques were available — identified Norwood as a suspect in 2011.
During their fight to exonerate Morton, defense lawyers noted the similarities in the Baker and Christine Morton murders and notified Travis County prosecutors, who ordered DNA testing on pubic hairs recovered from Baker’s home. Those tests identified Norwood, cementing Morton’s claim of innocence and forcing then-District Attorney John Bradley to drop his opposition to freeing Morton, who had been convicted in Williamson County.
A Travis County jury also convicted Norwood in Baker’s death in September 2016, leading to the latest round of appeals.
In its latest ruling, the 3rd Court of Appeals also rejected Norwood’s claim that the trial judge improperly allowed prosecutors to discuss three burglaries Norwood committed about six months before Baker was killed. All three were within a half-mile of Baker’s house in Austin’s Brentwood neighborhood, and Norwood had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of theft in the three cases.
During Norwood’s trial, prosecutors argued that the burglaries helped establish a motive for killing Baker, saying he would not have wanted a witness to an additional burglary while out on bond for the prior break-ins.
“The evidence was relevant to establishing Norwood’s motive to kill Baker,” the appeals court ruled, noting that there was no evidence that Norwood knew the victim or had interacted with Baker before she was killed.
The court also determined that state District Judge Julie Kocurek properly told jurors to consider the burglaries only to determine Norwood’s motive and only if jurors determined beyond a reasonable doubt that Norwood committed the crimes.