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Defense lawyer: Yoga shop killing defendant ‘lost it’ after fight

ROCKVILLE — A woman killed her coworker inside an upscale yoga clothing shop when she “lost it” during an argument but did not plan the act and should not be convicted of first-degree murder, her lawyer argued Wednesday, countering prosecutors’ assertions it was a savage and premeditated crime.

The concession at the outset of Brittany Norwood’s murder trial was aimed at encouraging jurors to convict her of second-degree murder or another less serious crime. Prosecutors have already said they plan to seek a sentence of life in prison without parole if Norwood is convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of Jayna Murray, 30, inside the Lululemon Athletica store in Bethesda, where the women worked.

State’s Attorney John McCarthy told jurors that Norwood, 29, lured Murray back to Lululemon after closing hours on the night of March 11, attacked her with at least a half-dozen weapons found inside the shop, then doctored the scene to support her fictitious tale that two men had attacked them and robbed the store.

The women were found in the back of Lululemon the following morning. Murray was lying face down in a pool of blood, with a rope around her neck, a crushed skull and more than 320 distinct injuries. Norwood was found with blood dried on her face, her hands bound, superficial wounds on her hands and body, and her pants were slit at the crotch, according to testimony.

Norwood’s allegations of a sexual assault, robbery and murder set off a police manhunt and public alarm in the well-heeled suburban Washington community, where violent crime is exceedingly rare. The shop is situated in a bustling commercial thoroughfare, alongside popular restaurants, across the street from a Barnes & Noble and adjacent to an Apple store.

“The law enforcement community gathered around this case because these men who did this to these two women had to be found and held accountable for their crime,” McCarthy said in his opening statement. “One problem: the concocted bogeyman did not exist.”

Norwood’s lawyer, Douglas Wood, told jurors that the women had gotten into a heated argument after returning to the store that night. Norwood had called Murray to say she had left her wallet in the store and needed help getting back inside. Wood did not say what the women had argued about, but prosecutors have previously said that Murray found suspected stolen merchandise during a search of Norwood’s bag.

“There was a horrific argument that occurred between the two of them in the store, and there was a horrific fight that occurred,” Wood said.

During that fight, he said, “Brittany Norwood lost it.”

Second-degree murder does not require premeditation.

McCarthy said Norwood’s actions were those of a cunning, manipulative and brutal killer, and urged jurors to find that she acted with premeditation. He said Norwood called Murray to return to the store even though other store workers lived closer. Once they entered, he said, she bludgeoned Murray with multiple objects found inside — including a knife and merchandise peg — in an attack that’s believed to have lasted at least 20 minutes. A worker at the next-door Apple store reported hearing two women loudly arguing and Murray crying out: “Oh God, please help me,” McCarthy said.

Police initially treated Norwood, 29, who grew up in Washington State and played soccer at Stony Brook University, as a victim based on her account. But her story unraveled during five interviews with police over the next six days, and she became the suspect, McCarthy said. She initially told police she had never been inside Murray’s car, and after the car was located several blocks away with Norwood’s DNA inside of it, she told police that the attackers had ordered her to move the vehicle away from the store.

She told police that two men had entered the store. But no footprints belonging to an intruder were ever found. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted with a coat hanger, but an examination did not back up the claim.

Norwood was arrested March 18 shortly after being interviewed at Montgomery County police headquarters. She sat impassively next to her lawyer, staring down, as McCarthy detailed the allegations and displayed graphic photographs of both her and Murray as they were found inside the store.

Wood, her lawyer, disputed the characterization of his client as a beguiling criminal. He said Norwood was so “inept” that police almost immediately recognized that she was lying and had staged the scene.

The store’s manager and prosecutors’ first witness, Rachel Oertli, testified that she arrived at the store on the morning of March 12 and found the front door unlocked. When she entered, the store was a mess, with merchandise on the floor and mannequins disheveled. She heard moaning coming from the back, immediately exited the store out of fear and asked a man standing outside to go in and check it out. That man discovered the two women, and Oertli called 911.

“It looked like there had been some kind of altercation,” she said.

The trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court is expected to last about two weeks.