Maryland authorities say Brittany Norwood, who was convicted of killing a co-worker inside a high-end yoga store in Bethesda, was properly questioned by detectives and should not be granted a new trial.
In a recent filing, the state attorney general’s office countered claims by Norwood’s attorneys that she was not properly advised of her legal right to remain silent. The matter will be decided by a panel of three judges from the state’s Court of Special Appeals.
Norwood, now 32, was found guilty in the high-profile 2011 slaying of Jayna Murray, 30, at the Lululemon Athletica shop in downtown Bethesda.
The case stood out because of the extreme violence — Norwood used more than six weapons to inflict at least 331 injuries to Murray — and the lengths to which Norwood went to try to convince police that she and Murray had been attacked by two masked men. Norwood put on a pair of men’s size 14 sneakers and made tracks through blood; she cut herself; she tied herself up in one of the store’s bathrooms; and she waited for the police to arrive.
The fact that Norwood asked for a new trial is hardly unusual. In Maryland, defendants convicted in circuit court trials generally have an automatic right to do so. There is no hearing scheduled in the case. Instead, the judges are expected to rule based on the attorney general’s filing and one submitted earlier by Norwood’s attorneys from the Maryland public defender’s office.
In Norwood’s appeal, her attorneys have a steep hill to climb. The evidence against her was so strong that in November 2011, a Montgomery County jury deliberated for just 21 minutes before convicting her of first-degree murder.
Her appeal is based on two arguments.
The first is that as detectives closed in on Norwood, they interviewed her twice at police headquarters without properly advising her of her Miranda rights to refuse to answer questions and to consult an attorney.
Norwood’s attorneys also contend that the trial judge allowed too much opinion-related testimony from a patrol officer, Colin O’Brien, who recalled seeing a wound on Norwood’s right hand after she arrived at Suburban Hospital. O’Brien told jurors about specific palm cuts he had seen when he had worked as an Army medic — wounds caused when a person is wielding a knife and the knife accidentally slips into his or her hand.
In the attorney general’s response, filed late Friday, attorneys addressed O’Brien’s wound testimony first. Their argument: His testimony was proper, but even if it weren’t, there was so much other evidence against Norwood that the opinion was not critical to the jury’s verdict.
As O’Brien told jurors, he was already at Suburban Hospital on the morning of March 12, 2011, when Norwood arrived in an ambulance. As she was being treated, O’Brien helped place her bloody clothing into evidence bags. He also noticed a cut on her right hand, a type of injury he testified about:
“A lot of times you can see knife injuries, particularly when you cause them to yourself, that are lacerations that are straight to the hand that was holding the blade.”
Norwood’s appellant attorneys argue that that amounted to “expert testimony,” which should have come from someone with more of a scientific background.
But lawyers at the attorney general’s office see it differently, arguing that the trial judge halted O’Brien from offering much opinion and that Norwood’s own attorneys admitted she had attacked Murray.
“The defense conceded that Norwood was guilty of intentionally killing Murray by repeatedly assaulting her with a knife and other weapons,” the attorney general’s office wrote. “The only issue before the jury was whether Norwood acted with premeditation; whether the knife slipped in Norwood’s hand during the assault on Murray had no bearing on that issue.”
The second part of Norwood’s appeal — whether she should have received a Miranda warning earlier in the investigation — centers on the legal concept of custody. It generally holds that when someone is being questioned by police and doesn’t feel free to leave, he or she needs to be read rights. Norwood spoke to detectives at the hospital, at her apartment and twice at Montgomery County police headquarters. The more Norwood spoke, the more detectives doubted her cover story — suspicions that they tried to keep from her.
On March 16, to get Norwood to come to police headquarters, detectives held out a ruse that they needed to take her fingerprints and hair samples to distinguish those that may have been left by suspects at the crime scene. Once she was there, the detectives asked Norwood to go through her story again. The fact that they did so in a small interrogation room, her appeals attorneys wrote, would make any reasonable person think he or she was a suspect and not free to go.
In the attorney general’s response, lawyers detailed several reasons why Norwood should have felt free to leave: She was driven to the station with her father, brother and sister; detectives were friendly and casual with her; they allowed her to leave the interview room to go the bathroom.
“As the trial court found, had Norwood chosen to do so, she could have walked down the hallway and out the front door, which was not locked from within [the] building,” the attorney general’s office wrote, going on to quote the trial judge directly: “To suggest . . . there was some overbearing of her will, that these officers subjecting [her] to a pressure-filled situation where her will was overborne, to me is just almost, it’s almost absurd.”
A later interview, on March 18, was arranged by Norwood through family members because Norwood wanted to come back to police headquarters to amend her statements. “Norwood not only chose the place and time for the interview, it was scheduled at her behest,” the attorney general’s office wrote.
Attorneys at the Maryland public defender’s office, which filed Norwood’s appeal, declined to comment on the attorney general’s response.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who tried the case, said the police officer’s testimony about wounds he had seen as an Army medic was meaningless relative to both “the mountain of evidence” against Norwood and the concession by Norwood’s attorneys that she had assaulted Murray.
As for the interviews of Norwood at police headquarters, McCarthy pointed to a ruling on the matter prior to the trial by Montgomery Circuit Judge Robert A. Greenberg. “His findings are unassailable,” McCarthy said. “That issue goes nowhere.”
Hugh Murray, one of Jayna’s two brothers, said that having Norwood’s appeal looming has been difficult for him and his family. “It weighs on us emotionally,” he said.
As a lawyer, though, Murray said he accepts Norwood’s efforts. “Maryland law allows this. It’s part of the process,” said Murray, 43, a captain with the U.S. Army JAG Corps who is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He said the Maryland attorney general’s response was well done: “In this situation, the facts really are conclusive,” he said.
He also said that his wife, brother, sister-in-law and parents are doing better at keeping their memories centered on how his sister lived. A vivacious, outgoing person, Jayna was just two months shy of earning her MBA and starting a new chapter in her life when she died. Hugh Murray serves as president of the Jayna Troxel Murray Foundation, which raises money for scholarships.
“Rarely does Brittany enter my mind,” he said. “I think about Jayna all the time. That said, there obviously are days when the darkness sneaks in and you do think about the suffering that Jayna went through in the last 30 minutes of her life, and you can’t help but think of the evil that is Brittany. . . . I will say that those times are fewer and farther between. For all of us, it is becoming less and less of a focal-point memory.”