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Attorney: Suspect didn't mean to kill girlfriend

LAWRENCEVILLE -- An attorney for David Norton said torching his girlfriend's dead body on Halloween eve two years ago was an act of courtesy, meant to spare her twin teenage sons from discovering her.

Nobody denies that Norton, 41, fatally shot his on-off flame of three years, Amy Ayer, 43, in the back of her head with a .20 gauge, sawed-off shotgun. Even less a point of contention is that he doused her body and bedroom in gasoline and tried to burn the scene to ashes, said Norton's defender, John Rutkowski.

Whether the Suwanee man meant to kill her or not is the question, Rutkowski said.

Norton's murder trial opened Tuesday with testimony from those who knew the Lawrenceville woman best. Norton faces life in prison, charged with murder, aggravated assault, arson and weapons possession.

Rutkowski maintained that Ayer pulled the loaded shotgun on her live-in boyfriend as he stepped from the shower the morning of Oct. 30, 2007. Theirs was a contentious relationship, and a physical altercation ensued, as had happened before, he said.

During the struggle, the gun "managed to get up behind her," Rutkowski said. "It takes light pressure for that thing to go off."

Prosecutors think that theory is all but ridiculous.

Assistant District Attorney Christa Kirk said Norton wrapped the body in a sheet with intent to leave the scene, then changed plans, opting for a gas can and candle he found in the house. He filled her prescription for Xanax and was arrested hours later at a Days Inn Suites in Norcross, she said.

Rutkowski said Norton used his girlfriend's meds and hard alcohol to deal with the emotional ebb and flow of their relationship.

Ayer's ex-husband, David Ayer, testified that he was on cordial terms with the mother of his sons, and that Norton was a little-discussed topic.

Weeks before her death, Amy Ayer stayed overnight with her ex-husband but slept on the couch, as David Ayer insisted, he testified. But the stay prompted an e-mail from Norton to his work account.

Norton prefaced the e-mail by saying it wasn't a threat, but wrote, "I don't want anyone sniffing around my girl ... There will be no more overnights," David Ayer read from the document, which he'd forwarded to police.

On the Friday night before her death, Amy Ayer said she would be asking Norton to leave her home, her ex-husband testified.

Earlier, Gwinnett firefighter John Williams testified that he tripped over Ayer's body about 2:30 p.m. while dousing the burning bedroom in water. He was unsure how long the fire, which had a minimal oxygen source, had been active, but he said Ayer had no pulse.

Domestic clashes between Norton and Ayer had summoned police before.

Norton pleaded guilty two months prior to the killing to simple battery and obstructing a 911 call. Those charges stemmed from an arrest after Norton slapped a phone from Ayer's hand as she tried to call police. He was sentenced to a year probation, court records show.