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Lawrence murder arraignment disrupted by man trying to attack suspect

Court officers struggled with a man who jumped over a railing in Lawrence District Court while trying to charge toward Tony Ventura, who was being arraigned in the murder of his girlfriend, Maria Morton.
Court officers struggled with a man who jumped over a railing in Lawrence District Court while trying to charge toward Tony Ventura, who was being arraigned in the murder of his girlfriend, Maria Morton.Tim Jean/Lawrence Eagle-Tribune/Pool/POOL

LAWRENCE — As Tony Ventura was led into a prisoner’s bay Monday to face charges that he killed the mother of his children, the courtroom erupted. One woman cursed at Ventura, warning that he was “dead.”

A brother of Maria Morton, who was found strangled to death on Sunday, then vaulted over a wooden barrier toward Ventura. As the audience stood and shouted, court officers swarmed the man, and authorities cleared the gallery, putting the proceedings on hold as Morton’s loved ones seethed.

It wasn’t the first time Ventura, 32, had been accused of attacking Morton, 32. She had twice been granted restraining orders against him, once after telling authorities he grabbed her by the arms during an argument.

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“This is not the first time [he’s] physically abused me,” she wrote in an affidavit supporting a 2012 restraining order, which expired a year later. “I’m afraid of him.”

But the couple was living together with their two children on Prospect Street in Lawrence when Ventura allegedly strangled Morton to death Sunday, according to a police report. The children were in the apartment at the time of the attack, authorities said.

Police found Morton’s body in the couple’s bedroom around 12:35 p.m. Shortly before 6 p.m., Ventura turned himself in at the urging of family members, according to a police report. He then confessed to the killing, police said.

On Monday, Ventura’s lawyer, James B. Krasnoo, urged the judge to consider his client’s struggle with mental health issues and substance abuse. He said Ventura had displayed “a dead affect” in their discussions and was reeling from what happened.

“This is a man who is feeling a great deal of remorse,” he said. Judge Michael A. Uhlarik ordered Ventura held without bail.

Court officers stood guard over Tony Ventura during his arraigned in Lawrence District Court Monday for murdering his girlfriend Maria Morton in her home.
Court officers stood guard over Tony Ventura during his arraigned in Lawrence District Court Monday for murdering his girlfriend Maria Morton in her home. Tim Jean/Eagle-Tribune/Pool

Ventura was on probation on a separate assault case at the time of the killing, court records show.

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After the hearing, Morton’s relatives declined to comment. Michael Morton, 34, who jumped over the railing, was charged with disorderly conduct and disrupting court, and was released on $250 bail. Morton’s mother received medial attention after the outburst, and used an inhaler. A relative sat with her, telling officials, “As long as I’m with her, she’s fine.”

“You have no idea how much I’m going through,” the man added.

Court records related to the couple’s relationship date back to 2007, when Morton took out a restraining order against him. She accused Ventura of stabbing himself as he threatened to “kick my ass,” and said he did not want to see another man with their son. She withdrew that restraining order about two months later. When she filed for the second order in 2012, Morton accused Ventura of using physical force against her.

In court, prosecutor Lindsay Shaheen said Ventura had previously been subject to another restraining order involving a different victim.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors say abuse often becomes more severe as a relationship continues.

“Abuse will only get worse with time,” said Arelis Huertas, director of community and residential programs at the YWCA of Greater Lawrence. “It never gets better.”

Such relationships can resemble hostage situations, she said. Victims who are living in fear often feel they cannot safely leave the relationship, she said. Such situations only become more difficult when there are children involved.

Victims’ advocacy groups have sought to raise awareness about the dangers of strangulation. “When a person is strangling you . . . your life is truly in their hands in that moment, and it can take a matter of moments for your life to come to an end,” Huertas said.

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Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.