GONZALES — Tolbert Morris was found guilty Thursday afternoon of the 1990 kidnapping, rape and murder of Dutchtown resident Tammy Lanie Bowers.
After deliberating for about 90 minutes, an eight-woman, four-man 23rd Judicial District Court jury returned with three guilty verdicts for the 56-year-old Morris, who now faces spending the rest of his life in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder, aggravated rape and second-degree kidnapping.
Bowers was abducted from a Dutchtown convenience store about 10:30 p.m. March 6, 1990, and she was subsequently raped and murdered along River Road. Her body was discovered two days later on what would have been her 19th birthday.
Lead prosecutor Robin O’Bannon on Thursday presented the state’s final two witnesses, including a fourth forensics expert, as she attempted to connect Morris to Bowers’ murder.
Carolyn Booker, a forensic DNA analyst for the Acadiana Crime Lab in New Iberia, testified that she was able to detect a DNA mixture of two different males on a green shirt found near Bowers’ body. The “major contributor” of that DNA matched at least 15 of 17 markers to a sample collected from Morris, Booker said.
Because of the age of the sample — the murder occurred 20 years before Booker tested the blood on the shirt — significant “degradation” of the sample prevented all markers from being present in the sample, Booker said.
O’Bannon tied in Booker’s testimony on Thursday with other expert testimony on Wednesday that showed mitochondrial DNA that didn’t exclude Morris from being at the crime scene as corroborating evidence to support the eyewitness testimony of Herman Frazier, who pleaded guilty in September 2010 to Bowers’ death in exchange for testifying against Morris.
As he did on Wednesday, defense attorney Jarrett Ambeau on cross-examination pointed out the unknowns surrounding Y-STR, which is handed down from the father, and mitochondrial, inherited from the mother, DNA. He said that evidence did not clearly point to Morris as the murderer.
Booker testified that the Y-STR DNA found at the scene excluded “99.96 percent” of the male population, while Ambeau estimated that means that more than 61,000 men in the nation — including more than 20 in Ascension Parish alone — have the same Y-STR DNA as Morris.
Morris did not take the witness stand Wednesday, and the defense did not present a case, instead choosing to focus its energy on creating doubt in the jury members’ minds about the scientific evidence and Frazier’s character.
“I think in this case, there’s no question there’s a reasonable doubt,” Ambeau said, adding that the evidence presented by the prosecution was circumstantial and didn’t include any definitive proof that Morris was in contact with Bowers in March 1990.
“It’s just some DNA that matches Mr. Tolbert — and a whole bunch of other people,” Ambeau said.
He described Frazier, who is serving a 50-year sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter, forcible rape and second-degree kidnapping in the Bowers case, as a “monster” and “the worst kind of evil there is.” He said Frazier pinpointed Morris because he needed a scapegoat.
O’Bannon, meanwhile, said that Frazier provided “direct evidence” to Morris’ crimes and asked the jury to weigh the other corroborating evidence presented.
Morris owned a 1979 Plymouth Duster that was similar to the vehicle a witness saw at the convenience store shortly before Bowers was abducted. That vehicle was registered to an address on La. 74, near the convenience store. And two pieces of DNA evidence were consistent — though not conclusive — with Morris being a principal to the rape and murder.
After the verdict was read, Morris turned around to his supporters in the courtroom and told them, “It’s gonna be all right.”
Meanwhile, Bowers’ family members, who had waited more than 22 years for a resolution to the murder, shed tears and exchanged hugs.
“My daughter is resting in peace,” said Joyce Zuvich, Bowers’ mother, who had spoken with her daughter just minutes before the abduction. “This is the happiest day of all of our lives.”
“Justice has been served,” Bowers’ father, Dean Bowers Sr., said.
Morris is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. Oct. 9 in District Judge Ralph Tureau’s courtroom.