The first-degree murder trial of a former Loudon County woman was delayed after a motion was continued when a hearing that began in the early afternoon went well into the evening hours Friday night at Loudon County Courthouse.
Deborah Janet Morton, who is accused of killing her husband in an incident from November 2013, turned herself in to police in 2014.
Now a resident of Georgia, she was indicted by a grand jury in what was initially reported as a suicide at a residence on Cattlemans Drive in Lenoir City.
An attorney with The Garza Law Firm in Knoxville was ordered by Ninth Judicial District Criminal Court Judge Jeffrey H. Wicks to self-report activities after Marcos Garza and his defense partner publicly unveiled forensic information they say exonerates their client.
The case was scheduled to go to trial Tuesday morning, but since the motion was continued, the trial could be delayed until this spring, according to Loudon County Court Clerk Lisa Niles.
“Given the fact that the motion was continued, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on a pending motion,” Garza said, noting that he could also not comment on the self-reporting order.
“That’s another one of those things that’s sort of pending as well,” he said. “… At this point I’m probably not comfortable on the things that are pending.”
Responding to a call of a suicide about 5:30 a.m. Nov. 6, 2013, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office deputies found Ralph Floyd Morton, 56, on the couch in the living room with a gunshot wound to the head. Police reported at the time that Deborah Janet Morton was found standing over her husband, and the man had a towel covering part of his face.
According to the 911 call from that morning, a dispatcher asked Morton how she thought the wound took place, and the woman said, “I don’t know, honey. It appears to be self-inflicted.”
Morton told emergency officials that she heard a shot and then woke up. The dispatcher instructed Morton to hold a towel in the location of the wound. The woman’s breathing seemed to get heavier during the call.
“I’m trying. Oh, God. His brother lives downstairs. Bobby?” Morton told the dispatcher, as she called for Bobby Lynn Morton, Ralph’s brother, who was living in a lower portion of the home at the time of the incident.
Bobby Morton, who is on the federal sex offender registry list for aggravated sexual battery, is not a suspect in the case.
The defense has requested the case be dismissed based, in part, on what attorneys say was the state’s failure to record patrol car video or audio and other pieces of evidence, including alleged gunshot residue on Ralph’s Floyd’s hand.
The defense has also disputed the state’s claim that Bobby Morton’s shirt did not contain gunshot residue. An independent forensics analysis conducted by Pittsburgh-based RJ Lee Group found that Bobby’s shirt had particles of gunshot residue.
As part of his summary report, LSCO Lt. Patrick Upton, the investigator on the case, reported that a red pillow with a hole through it was found on the scene. The pillow had blood and gunshot residue, according to Upton’s report. Upton noted that Ralph’s positioning and items found at the scene were unusual.
“The use of the pillow also seemed out of the ordinary for someone committing suicide,” Upton wrote. “Further investigation at the scene also revealed that Mrs. Debbie Morton had washed her hands upon the initial deputy’s arrival.”
Upton said in a previous interview that standards for admitting gunshot residue into evidence stemming from particles on Bobby’s Morton’s shirt were insubstantial.
Cortney Dugger, spokesman with the Ninth Judicial District Attorney General, would not comment on the case.
When asked whether a complaint against The Garza Law Firm was filed with the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, District Attorney General Russell Johnson said via email that information on complaints was "strictly confidential until acted upon by the BPR."
"The only public disclosure of a complaint should be when the BPR renders a decision on the complaint," Russell wrote. "The reason for this is to not give credence to frivolous complaints or unfounded complaints. Therefore, if this office were to have filed or is contemplating filing a complaint — we could neither acknowledge nor deny same.
"Additionally, to respond on this subject would merely lead to more pre-trial publicity and would add to the damage done and probable need for change of venue brought about by the recent News-Herald article."
Garza said he thought he was within his ethical parameters for commenting on forensics evidence the defense was planning to bring to bear in the case.
“The reason we made the prior comment is just that we felt strongly there we were two interpretations of the forensics, essentially that there are two sides to every story,” Garza said. “We think this is one of those.”