Deborah Janet Morton, who now lives in north Georgia, turned herself in to police in 2014 and was released on $50,000 bond after being indicted by a grand jury in what was initially reported as a suicide call at a residence on Cattlemans Drive in Lenoir City.
Dispatched to the scene about 5:30 a.m. Nov. 6, 2013, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived to find Ralph Floyd Morton, 56, on the couch in the living room with a gunshot wound to the head.
Deputy Jamie Ketner, the first officer to arrive on the scene, reported that Morton was standing over Floyd’s head, and the man had a towel covering part of his face, according to reports.
Marcos Garza and James Owen, Deborah Morton’s defense attorneys with The Garza Law Firm in Knoxville, have requested that the case be dismissed based on a failure to preserve evidence related to the absence of patrol car video from the scene. A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday at Loudon County Courthouse.
Garza said the Ninth Judicial District Attorney General’s office, the agency prosecuting the case, has argued that since the incident was first reported as a suicide, and not a murder, patrol footage was not taken.
“You ought to be able to hear them, and sometimes what they say as they arrive on the scene is very important, that initial impression of what things look like,” Garza said. “What’s going on. What happens first. What happens next is very important, not just to the prosecution but to the defense too, because it reveals a lot of, frankly, the truth of what happened in real time.”
He said the defense filed affidavits from two residents living in the area, both of whom reported they saw “several police vehicles parked in front of the Morton house with blue lights activated.”
Cortney Dugger, spokesman with the district attorney’s office, would not comment on any details of the case.
“We won’t comment on that case whatsoever with it still pending,” Dugger said.
LCSO Lt. Patrick Upton, the investigator on the case, said during an interview that even if the cruisers had been recording video, audio would not have been detected inside the home.
“At the time we didn’t have body cameras so when they’re so far from the vehicle it doesn’t pick up because the audio doesn’t pick up,” Upton said. “And the cars are outside the residence so there’s nothing outside you’re going to video that has anything to do with what happened inside. I just can’t see anybody dismissing that kind of a case.”
According to audio from the emergency call, obtained through an open records request with the Loudon County E-911 office, a dispatcher asked Morton how the wound occurred, and Morton said, “I don’t know, honey. It appears to be self-inflicted.”
“Were you there when he did this or did you just hear it?” the dispatcher asked.
Morton told the emergency officials that she heard the shot and woke up.
The dispatcher then asked Morton to get a “clean towel” and hold it in the location of the wound. Morton, whose breathing seemed to get heavier as the call progressed, appeared to struggle when attempting to apply the towel.
“I’m trying. Oh, God. His brother lives downstairs. Bobby?” Morton can be heard saying.
Bobby Lynn Morton, who is not a suspect in the case, is on the federal sex offender registry list for aggravated sexual battery.
In addition to the complaint about a lack of patrol video on the scene, part of the defense’s case involves particles of gunshot residue Garza and Owen said were found on samples of Bobby Morton’s T-shirt during a forensics analysis conducted by Pittsburgh-based RJ Lee Group.
According to Upton’s case summary of the incident, Bobby Morton was living downstairs at the time of the incident and was “unaware of what was happening.” Upton wrote in the report that Ralph Morton’s positioning was unusual, as Morton was covered in a blanket and laying on his right side. A red pillow with blood and a hole through it was found on the floor, and also according to the report, the pillow had “what appeared to be gun powder residue on it.”
“Based on my experience, in working with other shootings and suicide cases, this seemed odd,” Upton wrote about Ralph’s position. “The use of the pillow also seemed out of the ordinary for someone committing suicide. Further investigation at the scene also revealed that Mrs. Debbie Morton had washed her hands upon the initial deputy’s arrival.”
Upton said evidence was sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for testing.
He wrote in the case summary report that Deborah Morton’s clothing tested positive for gunshot residue in an amount that “indicated that Mrs. Morton was near a gun when it was fired, came in contact with a recently fired gun or fired ammunition components.”
“This is significant due to the fact that Mrs. Morton stated she was in the bedroom and away from Mr. Morton, who was in the living room at the time of the shooting,” according to the case summary.
Garza and Owen dispute police records indicating that Bobby Morton’s shirt did not test positive for gun residue.
“We try to limit our response to what Upton talked about — his forensics confirms his suspicions,” Owen said. “What we want to put out is that forensics does not support his suspicions, that actually it points to Bobby rather than Debbie, that TBI’s test of Bobby’s shirt was negative. We don’t know why it was negative, but we know when we tested it came back positive — both stubs.”
The defense also alleges that testing performed on Ralph’s hands was not reliable because it was done after Ralph’s body was transported to the hospital, not at the scene.
“Only then were the bags put on his hands,” Owen said. “… Anybody who knows about gunshot residue can tell you gunshot residue is fragile evidence. If you want to test for somebody’s hands you bag them at the scene or you run the risk that your fragile evidence falls off in the bag.”
Owen said that in his view, the forensics does not support the case that Deborah is guilty.
“In fact, what the forensics does support is that there was gunshot residue on Bobby’s shirt, and the gunshot residue that was tested on Floyd’s hands was invalid,” he said.
The jury trial is set to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Loudon County Courthouse.
Upton said standards for admitting gunshot residue into evidence were not met in Bobby Morton’s case.
“We’ve got a good case,” Upton said. “We’re confident with the case. We’ve got evidence on our side. The particles, that will be something left up to people who know more about that stuff than me to explain, but hopefully when it goes to trial everything will come out.”