Erik Larson

Jan 24, 2009

Troubles in Texas - New Evidence in the Larry Swearingen Case

A man on death row in Texas who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday for the murder of a nineteen year old college student received last minute hope from forensic pathologists — including one who performed the original autopsy on the victim — who have concluded that the prosecution’s case does not square with further forensic analysis of the victim’s body.

In 1998, Larry Swearingen was found guilty of the strangulation death of Melissa Trotter, whose body was discovered dumped in the woods of East Texas. The original autopsy concluded that her body was discovered about twenty five days after her murder, a conclusion that coincided with the last time she was seen alive, having lunch with Mr. Swearingen.

The latest forensic analysis since the 1998 murder, however, suggests a far different picture — her body was discovered at most within fourteen days of her death, and probably within two to three days. The forensic evidence supporting this conclusion is substantial, including well-known decay rates for organs, levels of bacteria in the body, absence of factors such as bloat, lack of animal mutilation, loss of body weight, and others.

If the forensic scenario is correct, Mr. Swearingen could not have committed the murder, since he would have been in jail for unpaid traffic violations when the murder occurred. “It’s just scientifically impossible for him to have killed the girl and thrown her into the woods,” said James Rytting, Swearingen’s appellate lawyer. “It’s guilt by imagination.”

In the original trial of Mr. Swearingen, the prosecution built its case on strong evidence, including “a match between the panty hose leg found around Trotter’s neck and the stocking remnant found in a trash dump next to Swearingen’s mobile home.” Additionally, hair samples from Ms. Trotter were found in Swearingen’s truck, and witnesses say that she had had lunch with Swearingen the day she disappeared.

Nonetheless, the Texas death penalty case is particularly troubling for the prosecution — and more generally for advocates of capital punishment — because it reveals that even when death penalty cases have seemingly indisputable, damning evidence and even after a lengthy appeals process, new evidence can surface that may call into question the guilty verdict. When such evidence is compelling, as it appears to be in this case, concerns about the innocence of the condemned should receive further, serious review. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the standard of course for all criminal trials in our judicial system; it does not appear, given the apparently exculpatory forensic findings in the case against Mr. Swearingen, that the standard has been met.

With days left before the state is scheduled to execute Mr. Swearingen for the murder of Melissa Trotter, one can only hope that the execution is stayed while the additional forensic evidence is reviewed.

Source article [here](http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/local/01/24/0124swearingen.html) .