ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) — A woman who killed her co-worker in an upscale suburban Washington yoga clothing shop was convicted of first-degree murder Wednesday and faces the prospect of life in prison.
The Montgomery County jury deliberated for a little more than an hour before returning the verdict against 29-year-old Brittany Norwood, who showed no expression as the decision was read.
There was no dispute in the weeklong trial that Norwood had killed 30-year-old Jayna Murray inside the Lululemon Athletica shop in affluent Bethesda on the night of March 11. The only question for jurors was whether the killing was premeditated and an act of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors portrayed Norwood as a calculating and ruthless murderer who lured Murray back to the store after closing and attacked her with about a half dozen instruments — including a hammer knife and wrench — then doctored the crime scene and concocted an elaborate fable that pinned the blame on two masked men.
Her lawyers said Norwood, a former college soccer player who had only recently started working at the store, had simply snapped during a heated argument and spun a series of “delusional” lies as a result.
The distinction was crucial because a second-degree murder conviction would have carried a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, far shorter than the punishment of life without parole now being sought by prosecutors.
In the end, the jury appeared swayed by the prosecution’s description of Norwood as a cunning criminal. Juror Donny Knepper said he was struck by the sheer number of wounds Murray suffered; a medical examiner counted at least 331 separate injuries, including a fatal knife wound to the brain.
“How could that be anything but premeditation?” said the 36-year-old Knepper.
A judge’s ruling prevented both sides from discussing the reason for the attack, but prosecutors have said Murray caught Norwood with stolen merchandise from the store and that Norwood stood to lose her job if the theft was reported.
The crime attracted immediate attention because it occurred in a bustling, high-end commercial thoroughfare.
Based on Norwood’s account that she and Murray had been attacked by robbers, police spent time hunting down leads and residents and shoppers in a county where murders are relatively rare were rattled by the thought that two dangerous men were on the loose. Those fears proved misplaced.
Norwood, who was interviewed five times over the next week, emerged as the sole suspect as her story unraveled. She was arrested seven days after the killing.
“The case that we tried and the person we tried was not the case we got involved in initially,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who prosecuted Norwood, said after the verdict.
Murray’s family choked back tears as the verdict was read and a “yes” sounded from their side of the courtroom. Norwood’s family sat impassively and declined to comment afterward.
“More than anything, I know the trauma our family has gone through,” said Murray’s mother, Phyllis. “I want no other family to go through this.”
Norwood’s attorney Doug Wood said she was disappointed at the speed of the verdict and said he expects to appeal. Sentencing is set for Jan. 27.
“I think that we were surprised that this happened so (fast). I thought we had established a pretty good case for second-degree murder.”
Jurors heard from detectives who interviewed Norwood and initially believed her story; from Apple employees who testified that they heard two women loudly arguing next door; from a nurse who examined Norwood at the hospital; and from a constellation of forensics experts whose testimony linked Norwood to the slaying.
McCarthy told jurors during closing arguments that there was abundant evidence of premeditation, from the number of wounds and weapons to the elaborate cover-up. After the two women had closed the store for the night, Norwood called Murray and asked her to return, saying she had left her wallet inside and needed help getting back in.
He said however long the attack lasted, there was enough time for Murray to plead for mercy — she cried out for help and beseeched Norwood to “talk to me,” according to testimony — and for Norwood to grab at least five different weapons inside the store to use against her victim. A medical examiner testified Wednesday that Murray was alive for the duration of the attack.
“This crime took an enormous amount of time, and there were dozens of opportunities — multiple times — when she could have stopped this,” McCarthy said.
In the 10 hours after the attack, prosecutors say, Norwood used a size-14 shoe to track blood around the store. She cut herself, even making a slit in her the crotch of her pants to support the allegation that she was raped with a coat hanger, and bound her hands above her head.
When police arrived the next morning, a dazed Norwood told police her concocted story. Detectives testified that they initially believed Norwood and treated her as a victim.
Wood, her lawyer, said it was ridiculous to think the killing was premeditated because her narrative was so inconsistent and riddled with holes. If she were so methodical, he said, she would have left the store after the killing instead of sticking around to stage the scene. And he said it defied reason for her to claim she had been raped when she had to have known that an examination would swiftly debunk that accusation.
“Is that the story of someone who is cunning?” Wood asked incredulously. “That’s the story of someone who is the exact opposite of cunning. That’s the story of someone who is delusional, lost.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.