HOUSTON (CN) - The jury that sentenced a Texan to death should have been instructed to consider evidence he was "emotionally distraught" when he killed his girlfriend and her infant son, a federal judge ruled.
Michael Wayne Norris, 56, is on death row for shooting to death Georgia Rollins, 38, and her 2-year-old son Keith Rollins in November 1986.
Norris was on parole at the time after serving part of an 8-year sentence for killing a man over a car accident.
On the night of the murders Rollins would not let Norris babysit her son Keith, and took the baby to church with her, according to an evidence summary by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Norris showed up at church during the service to get Keith and argued with Rollins until a security guard intervened, then left without the boy and went home.
Norris repeatedly called Rollins at her apartment that night and she hung up on him every time.
That's when something went awry inside Norris, according to the case record in U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon's March 28 ruling.
He took a deer rifle to Rollins' apartment, broke the glass of her bedroom window and climbed in. He told Rollins: "I hate to do this Georgia, but I told you. I told you you couldn't mess me over. I told you you couldn't leave me," according to the criminal appeals court.
Then he shot Rollins and Keith to death. The baby was fatally shot twice in the head and once in the chest. Rollins took a fatal chest shot and had fragment wounds on her face, neck, chest and left arm from shots that first hit the baby.
Rollins' family members lived with her at the apartment and saw Norris leave the bedroom with the rifle. Norris told them as he ran out, "Y'all get out of my way. Let me go out. I done come and do what I come to do. Just let me go out," according to the appellate court's evidence summary.
Norris returned home sobbing and confessed to his mother. He also called his pastor and police that night and turned himself in, admitting to killing Rollins and her son.
Norris was sentenced to death in June 1987 by a Harris County jury.
He filed two state habeas applications that were both denied by the TCCA. He petitioned a Federal Court for habeas relief in December 2014.
Norris' petition raises 15 grounds for relief, including that the evidence was insufficient to justify his capital murder conviction and that the evidence did not indicate he was a future danger.
Harmon granted Norris' application, persuaded by his argument that the judge who presided over his capital murder trial should have instructed the jury to consider mitigating evidence during the penalty phase.
"Norris presented mitigating evidence. This included evidence that: the murders were a crime of passion; Norris was emotionally distraught at the time of the offense; Georgia embarrassed him when he tried to approach her at church and hung up when he tried to call her; Norris had the opportunity to shoot other members of Georgia's family, but did not do so; Norris expressed remorse to his mother and his pastor; he turned himself in to the police immediately after the crime; he accepted responsibility for the crime; he had been a good student; he was active in his church; he was a good father to his own daughter and treated Georgia's son like his own; and he maintained regular employment," Harmon wrote.
But the judge instructed the jury to consider only two issues: whether he acted deliberately and whether there is a chance he poses a future danger.
"They were not given a general mitigation instruction. Norris now argues that neither of these issues gave the jury an avenue to give effect to his mitigating evidence," Harmon said.
She cited Supreme Court precedent from Penry v. Lynaugh, in which the justices decided the absence of a mitigating evidence instruction gave Penry's jury no way to incorporate his mental retardation and childhood abuse into their decision whether to sentence him to death.
Habeas applications are one of the most common petitions filed in Federal Court, partly due to the paltry $5 fee, but they are rarely granted.
Harmon ordered Texas to release Norris unless within 120 days it grants him a new sentencing hearing, or vacates his death sentence.
She stayed the ruling pending any post-judgment motions or appeals.
An online search brings up a picture of Norris, a handsome, moonfaced black man with gleaming white teeth, standing with his hands folded at his waist, dressed in white prison garb.
Below the photo is a January 2004 message from Norris, in which he seeks a pen pal.
"I love horsebackriding, motorcycles, traveling, camping, long walks, I enjoy exciting movies, thrillers, mystery, horror, + love romance + films about a real-life story, and I enjoy writing exchanging ideas + opinions. I have a 24 year old daughter, + 4 grand kids, and a 12 year old step daughter. So if you're interested in having a sincere pen friend via letters, feel free to write i'll be happy to hear from you, thanks again for reading my message, smile," he wrote.
Asked to describe her reaction to the ruling, Norris' federally appointed attorney Casie Gotro said: "Over the moon, elated, surprised pleasantly. I mean words can't describe it. It's a spectacular victory."
Norris' lead defense attorney Patrick McCann told Courthouse News: "It gives Mr. Norris a chance to go back and look a jury in the eye and explain the reasons he should be put in prison for the rest of his life as opposed to being executed."
McCann said he had just sent Norris word of the ruling and hoped to drive up to Livingston, Texas to visit him this week.
"I believe his reaction's going to be the same. A good bit of elation and a great sigh of relief. That's of course assuming the state simply decides to retry him instead of appealing this ruling," McCann said.
McCann said he suggested to Judge Harmon that it's in everyone's interest for the case to go back to a jury.
"But that's going to be up to them, whether they want to appeal this or whether they simply want to let Harris County take the case back over."