It was Sept. 15, 1987, and Wade Burnett had just returned home from a dinner celebrating his 16th birthday when the phone rang.
His mother and stepfather were calling from Brownsville to wish him a happy birthday. Burnett had left South Texas a month earlier to live with his father in Shreveport, La. He recalls his stepfather “kept wanting to talk.”
The next morning, as he was getting ready for school, the phone rang again: His stepfather was dead.
Burnett’s mother said Bill Mowbray had shot himself in their bed. But eight months later, Susie Mowbray was sentenced to life in prison, convicted of murder.
Standing on tiptoes, desperate to catch a glimpse, the 16-year-old watched as sheriff’s deputies escorted his mother from the courtroom.
Now, almost eight years later, as a result of a son’s quest to prove his mother’s innocence, Susie Mowbray may be released and granted another trial.
“I’ve always felt like a hostage here, and I’ve always believed at some point someone would come along and rescue me,” she wrote from prison. “I never dreamed that someone would be my son. He is my hero.”
Wade Burnett, now a 24-year-old law student at Louisiana State University, remembers well the day of his mother’s sentencing.
“I felt betrayed. I remember thinking, ‘This can’t happen. This cannot happen.’
“All of us felt let down by the whole system. The criminal justice system is supposed to be set up to protect the rights of innocent people, and, here, those rights had been completely ignored.”
Burnett skipped summer camp to attend the trial.
“What was told to us was this would finally clear everything up, that a huge mistake was made, and once we got into the trial, it would be clear that she hadn’t done it,” he said.
But prosecutors played up the couple’s wealth: Susie, a blond debutante who was a cheerleader and homecoming queen in Shreveport; Bill, a Cadillac dealer who spent extravagantly on boats, shotguns and diving trips to the Caribbean.
Susie Mowbray, prosecutors said, had shot her husband in the head while he slept because she wanted his insurance money.
Inside the courtroom, the couple’s king-size bed sat center stage, complete with mirrored headboard and bloodstained mattress. On top lay a mannequin with a stick through the head.
The jurors heard of an Internal Revenue Service investigation into Bill Mowbray’s finances because of suspicious transactions at his car dealership. They also were told by a psychiatrist that Mowbray had attempted suicide nearly a year before by shooting himself in the chest.
But the most compelling testimony came from Austin police Sgt. Dusty Hesskew, the prosecution’s blood-spatter expert. Although no bloodstains were visible on Susie Mowbray’s nightgown, Hesskew testified that tests showed microscopic blood spatter. He also knelt by the bed and reenacted how Susie. Mowbray allegedly killed her husband, using the dummy and her nightgown as props.
After two hours of deliberations, she was convicted of killing her husband.
For the next five years, Wade Burnett clung to the hope that his mother’s conviction would be overturned.
He and his younger sister, Cricket, went on with their lives as best they could. They graduated from high school and started college. On weekends, they visited their mother in prison.
Those were the most difficult times, recalled Burnett’s father, Gerald, who often drove his children from Shreveport to Gatesville, Texas, about 300 miles, to see their mother.
In the summer of 1993, all his mother’s appeals were exhausted. It was then Wade Burnett decided to take action.
“I wanted to know what happened,” he said. “It no longer made sense that she could be in jail six years after this had happened for something that she didn’t do.”
With the help of his father, an attorney who served on his ex-wife’s defense team, he obtained copies of trial testimony, notes and newspaper articles.
For eight hours a day, he read and reread, formulating questions for his mother, father, witnesses and attorneys. He made several trips to Brownsville to meet with people who knew the Mowbrays.
Five months after beginning his research, Burnett found what he had been looking for: evidence that appeared to contradict the state’s expert witness on blood spatter.
He and Ft. Worth attorney Robert Ford wrote and filed an appeal with the Court of Criminal Appeals, which ordered a hearing in August. Hesskew then admitted his testimony about blood spatter had been invalid because a follow-up test was not done.
State District Judge Darrell Hester ruled that without Hesskew’s testimony, “there was another equally reasonable hypothesis other than the applicant’s guilt; Mowbray’s death was suicide or an accident.”
Another witness at the hearing was Herbert MacDonell, whom prosecutors initially asked to examine Susie Mowbray’s nightgown in 1987. MacDonell, a blood-spatter authority who also was an expert witness at the O.J. Simpson trial, testified that he found no blood on the nightgown.
Prosecutors never called him as a witness, however, and “chose to suppress MacDonell’s evidence” until days before trial, Hester ruled.
Now the Mowbrays are awaiting a ruling from the appeals court on whether the conviction will be overturned. Prosecutors stand by their case but won’t say whether they will pursue a new trial if Susie Mowbray’s conviction is set aside.
Burnett said he isn’t concerned about the possibility of a new trial.
“There never should have been a first trial,” he said, “and there’s even less of a reason to have one now. We’ve won.”
Both he and his mother said they are no longer angry about the time they’ve lost together. Instead, they look toward the day they can talk and touch and hug outside the walls of the Gatesville women’s prison.
“I want us all to spend the night under the same roof,” Wade mother’s wrote, “and wake up knowing all is right in our world.”