GONZALES — A 12-member jury could have Tolbert Morris’ fate in its hands as early as Thursday afternoon.
The prosecution on Wednesday began presenting its case against Morris, who is accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering 18-year-old Tammy Lanie Bowers in March 1990, calling 12 witnesses, including the man who says he was with Morris and Bowers the night she died.
Herman Frazier, who is serving a 50-year sentence after pleading guilty to the manslaughter, forcible rape and second-degree kidnapping of Bowers in September 2010, spent about 90 minutes on the witness stand Wednesday, telling the eight women and four men on the jury in Judge Ralph Tureau’s 23rd Judicial District courtroom that he was mostly a spectator and pointing at Morris as the man responsible for Bowers’ death.
Bowers had driven to a convenience store on La. 74 near La. 30, not far from her trailer home, about 10 p.m. on March 6, 1990, to use a pay phone to call her mother, Joyce Zuvich. After speaking for about 20 to 30 minutes with her mother, Bowers called a friend, Steve Vilar, who testified Wednesday that Bowers was abducted while she was on the phone with him.
Her body was discovered two days later, on March 8, 1990, on what would have been Bowers’ 19th birthday, off a dirt road near Houmas House Plantation and Gardens on La. 75.
Frazier, who was 23 at the time of Bowers’ killing, testified that he was a passenger in Morris’ vehicle when they drove by the convenience store and saw Bowers on the phone. He said that Morris turned the vehicle around and pulled into the convenience store.
“He got out of the car to talk to her and the next thing I knew he was knocking her out,” Frazier said.
Frazier said that Morris drove around for 10 to 15 minutes before pulling off onto a gravel road. Morris then told Frazier to get out of the car while Morris raped Bowers, Frazier testified. Morris then drove up River Road before pulling off on a dirt road where Morris raped Bowers again, Frazier said.
Frazier admitted that he did nothing to stop Morris, whom Frazier described as a family friend, saying he was “drunk and high and still not believing what was going on.”
At that point, Frazier testified, Morris told him to rape Bowers, and he did so. Morris then dragged Bowers out of the vehicle, Frazier said, and after a verbal altercation, Morris “picked up something and beat her.” Frazier said he was “stupid and scared” and fled the scene.
The case went cold until new DNA testing located a match to Frazier in 2006. He took a plea bargain the day his murder trial was set to begin, pleading guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testifying against Morris.
“I took my sentence because I decided to go ahead and do the right thing,” Frazier testified.
Defense attorney Bruce Unangst attempted to poke holes in Frazier’s story, pointing out that Frazier had never mentioned a second Morris rape of Bowers until Wednesday. Unangst said that Frazier “did nothing and said nothing for 20 years” until he was arrested in 2006, and then he made “the deal of the century” to avoid life in prison.
In order to build a timeline, lead prosecutor Robin O’Bannon called several witnesses to recall the minutes leading up to Bowers’ abduction. One of those was Zuvich, who was visibly shaken as she recounted the last time she spoke with her daughter.
“We both closed the conversation with ‘I love you’ ... and that was the last time we talked,” Zuvich said.
O’Bannon also called investigators with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office and Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, as well as two forensics and DNA experts.
Dr. Emile Laga, the forensic pathologist who performed Bowers’ autopsy, said she was killed when she was struck in the head with a “very severe, very big force — maybe extreme force” and that she was dead within five minutes of being hit.
Romy Franco, a forensic DNA analyst with the Orchid Cellmark lab in Dallas, testified that a pubic hair found on Bowers was not a match to Frazier but could have been a match to Morris. Because the hair did not have a root, Franco said, she had to rely on a mitochondrial DNA test, which isn’t as conclusive as a nuclear DNA test and is “usually used as a method of last resort.”
Defense attorney Jarrett Ambeau said the database that Franco used to compare Morris’ mitochondrial DNA had three other matches in it out of 4,839 samples, meaning that a statistical probability shows that an estimated 143 people in Ascension Parish alone could have the same mitochondrial DNA as the pubic hair found on Bowers. Franco admitted “it’s possible” someone else was there and killed Bowers.
Unangst said “there’s no question (and) there’s no doubt” that Frazier was guilty of raping and killing Bowers, but there is plenty of doubt pointing toward Morris’ innocence.
“Tolbert Morris’ DNA is not found on any piece of evidence in this case,” Unangst said.
O’Bannon said she planned to call her final two witnesses on Thursday morning when the trial was scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. before turning the case over to the defense. Tureau said he was hopeful all of the evidence would be presented and closing arguments made by the end of Thursday.
“I think there’s a real good chance we can finish this trial tomorrow,” Tureau said.