Could 1988 cold case in Austin help exonerate man
imprisoned nearly 25 years?
By Chuck Lindell
Sept. 29, 2011
• Baker, 34, was killed Jan. 13, 1988, by six blows to the
lying in bed at her home in the 1200 block of Dwyce Drive in North
Central Austin. She was alone at the time; her two young children were
spending the night with her estranged husband. Details of her murder
have not been released, so it was not known Wednesday if any items were
left atop her body as well.
Patricia Stapleton found her mother, Mildred
McKinney, murdered in her own home on Nov. 4, 1980. If McKinney was
alive today, she would have been 101 years old, according to Stapleton.
Michael Morton, left, is serving a life term for his wife's murder. He
blames her killing on an unknown intruder.
police are investigating potential links between an
unsolved 1988 murder and the strikingly similar killing of Christine
Morton two years earlier in Williamson County, raising the possibility
that a serial killer is to blame and bolstering claims that Morton's
husband has been wrongly imprisoned for almost 25 years.
Like Morton, Debra Jan Baker of Austin was beaten to death with a blunt
object while lying in her bed. The Baker and Morton homes were about 12
What's more, lawyers for Michael Morton — serving a life term for his
wife's murder — have tried without success to get court-ordered DNA
testing to determine if there are links to another unsolved but similar
crime, the 1980 bludgeoning death of Mildred McKinney. McKinney also
was attacked in bed in her home, about a half-mile from the Morton
house in southwestern Williamson County.
Morton has consistently proclaimed his innocence, blaming his wife's
murder on an unknown intruder, and attempts to link that crime to the
McKinney case have been central to his lawyers' efforts to overturn his
The link to the Baker case — established in interviews with Baker
family members and from information revealed in a Monday hearing in the
Morton case — is new.
About two weeks ago, cold case investigators from the Austin Police
Department began re-interviewing Baker's relatives based on a tip from
Morton's lawyers with the Innocence Project of New York.
The tip included the name and DNA profile of a man whose DNA was
discovered on a recently tested piece of evidence from the Morton case:
a bandanna that also contained Christine Morton's blood and one of her
The payoff for the Innocence Project came on Monday, when a routine
hearing on Michael Morton's exoneration efforts took a dramatic turn
after the judge handed out a two-page document provided by the Travis
County district attorney's office.
The document, reviewed in private and discussed in a closed hearing to
avoid compromising the cold case investigation, is now known to have
included recent developments in the Baker case.
The new information left defense lawyers
ecstatic, and they
pushed for Morton's immediate release from prison when Monday's hearing
resumed in open court.
"This is very powerful evidence, your honor. Wow," defense lawyer John
Raley said, adding that the information lent credibility to the DNA
found on the bandanna because the suspect lived near the scene of
District Judge Sid Harle has barred lawyers and investigators from
discussing the Morton case. But it would be a significant development
if DNA on the blood-stained bandanna, which was found at a construction
site behind the Morton house, belonged to a felon who also lived near
another murder victim who had been killed in similar circumstances.
All that is publicly known about the suspect is what has been discussed
in court: His DNA profile was listed on the national Combined DNA Index
System for a felony committed in California, and he has state and
federal felony convictions for offenses in three states that include
burglary, drug use and assault with intent to kill.
As of a hearing in late August, the man was not in police custody or
According to court records, autopsy reports and newspaper articles, the
Morton murder shared certain characteristics with the other two crimes:
• Christine Morton, 31, was killed in August
1986 by eight blows
to her head as she lay in bed in the 9100 block of Hazelhurst Drive. A
neighbor checking on the Mortons' 3-year-old son, who was wandering
outside alone, discovered her body beneath a comforter, suitcase and
• McKinney, 73, also was attacked in bed, according to blood splatters
on her headboard, in her home in the 12700 block of Sherbourne Street,
court records show. She was found Nov. 4, 1980, on her bedroom floor
also beneath household items — a reclining chair, small table and
vacuum cleaner. Unlike Morton, her hands were bound and she had been
Baker, who lived nearby and was on good terms with his
wife, said he was initially a suspect and was frustrated that police
"wasted a lot of time" before ruling him out.
"At the time, we were told there was a guy who lived literally in a
house down the street on Dwyce who had (a criminal record). I'm waiting
to find out if that's connected," he said Wednesday.
Family members, particularly daughter Caitlin Baker, have tried over
the years to keep the case alive by discussing it with reporters or
calling the police for updates, he said.
Something new happened about two weeks ago —
police contacted family members to go over the case, Phillip Baker said.
"They interviewed basically everyone, but this time they
asked specific names and showed me some pictures," Baker said. "I
didn't recognize any of the things they laid out."
Informed of the Morton case by a reporter with the Texas Tribune, which
broke news of the renewed Baker investigation, Caitlin Baker asked a
detective if the cases were linked. The detective said they were
investigating a "possible connection" but gave no details, she said.
"I really don't have an answer for how it makes me feel. The shock of
it all is almost numbing," she said by email Wednesday.
"If this guy is caught, that's a good thing," Phillip Baker said. "If
it brings closure to that (Morton) case, that's good in itself. If it
brings closure to ours, well, that's going to be a tough process.
There's going to be hearings, a lot of attention. It's going to be hard
having that in the paper, but that's part of the process."
482-8516. Staff writer Patrick George contributed to this report.