Son Wins New Murder Trial for Mother
For eight years Susie Mowbray has lived behind bars for the murder of her husband, even as her son enrolled in law school and labored relentlessly to prove her innocence.
For mother and son, this Christmas season answered their prayers when a Texas appeals court threw out Mowbray’s murder conviction this month and ordered a new trial.
“There are very few things in life that just feel so right down to your very core,” Wade Burnett, Mowbray’s son, said of the ruling he has pursued for so long. “We’ve won.”
The Baton Rouge, La., law student was 16 when he sat in a South Texas courtroom and heard his mother pronounced guilty of the shooting death of his stepfather, a death that Mowbray contends was suicide. Burnett’s life since has been devoted to winning her release from a conviction that he regards as intensely personal. He talks not about murder charges against his mother, but “against us.”
“Once he started, he never stopped,” Mowbray said from her prison cell in Gatesville, Texas. “It’s been an arduous effort on his part. I tell you, has he done a mother proud or what? There were so many brick walls, but he just kept going.”
Burnett entered law school to help free his mother, despite his low regard for the legal profession. “I was so frustrated with the law and wanted nothing to do with it,” he said.
Burnett discovered, however, that the best way to help his mother was to work within the system.
With his mother’s attorney, Robert Ford, Burnett filed papers that resulted in a court review in August 1995. The prosecution’s key witness, who originally testified that he found minuscule, though not visible, splatters of blood on Mowbray’s nightgown, admitted at the review that his testimony was invalid because no follow-up tests were conducted.
The presiding judge determined that “fundamental fairness” required a new trial, a decision that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld. Ford credited Burnett’s focus on the blood as the basis for the court review.
Jay William Mowbray Jr., a prominent car dealer, was found dying in his bed in his Brownsville, Texas, home in 1987. He suffered bullet wounds to his head and his hand, and a handgun was found at the scene. Although the death was first considered a suicide, Susie Mowbray was charged with his murder three months later.
Because she is restricted to one five-minute phone call every 90 days, Mowbray and Burnett cannot celebrate the recent events together. “It’s so hard to have this news and not be able to share it,” said Mowbray, who asked for details about her son. “It seems like we prepared ourselves for everything but this. When you consider how long we’ve waited for news like this, it will take awhile for it all to sink in.”
Mowbray spent Christmas behind bars; a 15-day waiting period will keep her in prison until January. After her release, she plans to take things “one day at a time” and visit her son and daughter in Dallas.
Because the ruling overturned the conviction but not the original indictment, Mowbray still faces murder charges. A new district attorney, who takes office in January, has said that she will not decide until then whether to retry the case.
“Our whole plan right now is to get Mom’s case fully resolved,” Burnett said. “We want to get back to a normal state of life where we don’t have homicide charges hanging over us.”
“Mom has stayed so strong through all of this. She’s waited a long time for vindication.”