NORMAN — After four hours of deliberating Wednesday afternoon, Cleveland County jurors found Russell Lee Blackwood guilty of first-degree murder and recommended a sentence of life without parole.
The jury found Blackwood guilty for the murder of Gary Norton Sr., 55, of Lexington, after participating in a drive-by shooting on Easter Sunday of 2012. Blackwood was charged along with Richard Dean Lansdale, 38, of Purcell, who has not yet had his day in court on the matter.
Formal sentencing for Blackwood is expected to be in six weeks by District Judge Tracy Schumacher. Lansdale is expected to go to trial over the matter at the end of October.
Tears of joy and relief ran down the faces of many of Norton Sr.’s family members. Norton’s son and daughter-in-law, sister and brother-in-law were in the courtroom day after day listening to the testimonies and viewing the evidence presented. Many of them hugged the prosecuting attorneys and couldn’t thank them enough.
“I think they did a very good job,” Gary Norton Jr. said. “We could not be more happy with what you guys have done.”
Norton Jr. said he is preparing a letter to read to the judge and Blackwood on the day of formal sentencing.
Lead prosecuting attorney Jennifer Austin told the family she thinks the jury listened to the facts and felt life without parole was appropriate. The jury also learned after the verdict was read that Blackwood had four other pending cases against him in other counties.
It also was left up to the jury Wednesday whether they believed Samantha Taitano was an accomplice to the crime, which they did not.
Taitano was in Lansdale’s vehicle with the two men the night of the drive-by shooting and was the only witness who testified about what happened in the car that night.
During her testimony, she admitted to helping dispose of evidence in Purcell Lake in the form of shell casings and gloves and a shirt worn by Lansdale. However, Austin said in closing statements that Taitano did not have any criminal intent; she was only with the two men that night to get high.
Austin said Blackwood was the one who pointed out the house to Richard Lansdale. The house, which was owned by Norton Sr., is where his son, Josh Norton, lived at the time. Prosecutors said Blackwood “wanted to teach (Josh Norton) a lesson.”
Blackwood was told by his girlfriend, Shannon Davis, that Norton tried to force himself upon her.
Austin said Lansdale did not have a “beef” with Norton; he didn’t even know Norton or know where he lived. Blackwood also handed the gun to Lansdale, she said.
“You don’t hand someone a gun without knowing what’s going to happen,” Austin said.
She said Gary Norton Sr. would still be on this earth if Blackwood didn’t put this shooting in motion and get the ball rolling. Blackwood was upset with Josh Norton because Davis said Norton sexually assaulted her.
Blackwood even admitted to participating in the shooting during calls he had with Davis while in jail, Austin said.
Portions of those calls were played in court Wednesday while a Cleveland County Sheriff’s deputy who was the custodian of jail calls was cross examined.
The calls recorded Blackwood telling Davis the following:
· If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t be in jail on a Murder I charge.
· He chose her over everything that meant anything to him.
· He was a passenger in a car defending his girlfriend because someone forced themselves upon her.
· She needed to file charges against Norton because it looked like he directly and intently went and committed the crime, adding it was all he could do to live with himself knowing that man was dead and he participated.
· He said no one, not even his lawyer, brought up that Josh assaulted her. He told Davis that he had been made out to be a heinous criminal, a monster, and they weren’t even looking at Josh.
· He said he knew what he was doing when he did it, then asked how long Josh was at Davis’ house before she called him.
Something brought up often in closing statements Wednesday was Samantha Taitano’s testimony. Lead defense attorney Charles Douglas told jurors that without it, prosecutors couldn’t prove Blackwood was in the car and had the intent to commit the crime.
Austin said even without Taitano’s testimony, other evidence points toward Blackwood, including the following:
· Numerous statements were made during calls while Blackwood was in jail. In one, he admits to being a passenger in the car and participating in the crime.
· Evidence shows there was a drive-by shooting and Gary Norton Sr. was killed. That evidence, including bullet fragments found at Norton’s home and shell casings found dumped in Purcell Lake (which Taitano testified was where they dumped the casings) were confirmed by OSBI analysts to have been fired from the same gun. Furthermore, Blackwood’s daughter testified that other shell casings given to OSBI were from her father and brother, who went shooting prior to the drive-by. These were tested and confirmed to be fired from the same gun, Blackwood’s gun, prosecutors said.
· Monica Henry, Blackwood’s former girlfriend, testified that while she was with Blackwood on Easter Sunday, they went to Lansdale’s home, where Lansdale gave Blackwood a gun and then took it back to her house, where it was given to her father.
· Several people also testified that they heard Blackwood threaten Josh Norton when Davis called him, telling him Norton was at her house. Blackwood’s daughter said the day before Easter, she heard her father tell someone on the phone that he better hope he’s gone by the time he gets there.
Davis testified that, when she had the call on speakerphone, Blackwood told Norton he better be gone by the time he got there. Josh Norton also testified that Blackwood threatened him several times, not only while he was at Davis’ house but later that night. Norton said Blackwood called his father’s cell phone and told him he was a “walking dead man.”
· Davis also testified that the pants she gave OSBI investigators were Blackwood’s pants. She said she thought he was wearing them the night of the shooting. OSBI analysts said they found gunshot residue on those pants. However, Douglas said the residue could have been from shooting the gun prior to the drive-by shooting.
The last thing Austin said to the jury Wednesday before they began deliberating was if they found Blackwood guilty, they should thoroughly consider his sentencing.
This happened in the middle of the night when people were at home sleeping on a holiday, Austin said. Norton Sr. was an innocent party in his own home, where he is supposed to feel safe and secure, sleeping.
Blackwood was trying to send someone a message, which could have been done with one shot of the gun, Austin said, adding that instead, the whole clip was unloaded on the house.
She told the jury to consider Blackwood’s reaction to everything. He didn’t ask Lansdale why he shot up the house instead of just the truck, and he didn’t ask why he unloaded the whole clip on the house, Austin said. He said in the calls that he knew what he was doing when he did it.
Blackwood’s actions cost Gary Norton Sr. his life and those actions should cost this defendant his life, too, she said.
“He deserves the rest of his life in prison,” Austin said.