American-Statesman


Could 1988 cold case in Austin help exonerate man imprisoned nearly 25 years?
By Chuck Lindell

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Sept. 29, 2011

Mildred Stapleton
Xavier Mascare-
AMERICAN-STATESMAN
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.

Christine Morton
Family Photo
Christine Morton

Michael Morton
Michael Morton, left, is serving a life term for his wife's murder. He blames her killing on an unknown intruder.

Austin 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 miles apart.

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 sentence.

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 hairs.

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 another murder.

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 prison.

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 wicker basket.

• 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 raped.

• Baker, 34, was killed Jan. 13, 1988, by six blows to the head while 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.

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Phillip 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 — unprompted, the 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."

clindell@statesman.com, 482-8516. Staff writer Patrick George contributed to this report.

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