Larry Ray Swearingen was sentenced to death in July 2000 for the 1998 abduction, sexual assault and murder of Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old college student from Montgomery County, Texas. DNA testing excluded Swearingen as the perpetrator, and forensic science provides an airtight alibi: Swearingen was in the county jail on outstanding traffic warrants at the time Trotter was murdered and her body dumped in the Sam Houston National Forest.
Over the course of Swearingen’s appeal, nine forensic scientists have testified for the defence, in sworn statements, on the witness stand, or both. Their estimates of post-mortem interval range from two days to a fortnight – well short, in every case, of the twenty-two-day interval between Swearingen’s arrest and the discovery of Trotter’s body. In other words, according to these nine witnesses, by the time Trotter was killed, Swearingen was behind bars – unless, as one entomologist speculated, Trotter’s body had been ‘frozen’ for a time before being dumped in the forest by an accomplice. Barring such an improbable scenario, the clear implication of the testimony was that Trotter must have been killed by someone else, at least ten days after her disappearance.
In 2007, the former Harris County Medical Examiner Joye Carter, who had testified at trial that Trotter had been killed on the day she went missing, revised her opinion in a sworn statement. Based on the data she collected herself at autopsy, this time including the condition of Trotter’s internal organs, she concluded that Melissa’s corpse had been in the forest for less than two weeks when it was discovered. In a brief to the court the same year, pathologist Glenn Larkin described how quickly the pancreas and spleen liquefy after death and estimated that Trotter had been dead for three or four days when her body was found.
The Chief Medical Examiner for Galveston County, Dr Stephen Pustilnik, submitted a sworn statement in Swearingen’s defence two years later, based on his histological examination of the tissue samples taken from Trotter’s organs. ‘Nuclear and cytoplasmic details of the tissue and other supportive elements such as lung tissue, myocardium, adipose tissue, blood vessels, blood elements and connective tissue are all in remarkably good shape,’ he wrote. ‘Without prior refrigeration, the deceased was killed within reasonable certainty between five or seven days prior to her discovery.’
Feb 29, 2015: DNA testing change sought “A Houston state senator instrumental in the passage of Texas’ DNA testing law announced plans on Monday to correct a flaw that could hamper new verifications of innocence.”
Oct 29 2015: “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for the second time Wednesday reversed a state district judge’s order that would have allowed East Texas death row inmate Larry Swearingen to test DNA from evidence in his murder case.”
Feb 10 2016: “The state’s highest criminal court has refused to reconsider its ruling reversing a trial court judge’s decision that would have allowed additional DNA testing of evidence a condemned killer contends could show he’s not responsible for the slaying of suburban Houston college student in 1999. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, without comment Wednesday, refused to rehear arguments from 44-year-old death row inmate Larry Swearingen. The court last October for a second time overturned a Montgomery County judge’s decision permitting the new tests.”