« "How Do Prosecutors (and the Rest of Us) Get Sentencing So Wrong?" | Main | Terrific review of localities that are "Addicted to Fines" »

August 21, 2019

Texas completes its fourth execution of year, this time of a defendant who persistently proclaimed his innocence

As reported in this local article, headlined "‘Lord forgive ’em’: Larry Swearingen executed despite claims of innocence," the state of Texas carried out an execution this evening. Here are some of the details:

For two decades, Larry Ray Swearingen told anyone who would listen that he did not kill Melissa Trotter. He knew her, he said — but wasn’t the one who raped and strangled the 19-year-old college student before dumping her body among the trees of the Sam Houston National Forest.

But on Wednesday night, the courts all turned down his final claims and the 48-year-old Montgomery County man met his end on the gurney in Huntsville. He took his final breath at 6:47 p.m., becoming the fourth man executed this year in the Lone Star State. “Lord forgive ’em,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Eyes closed, he began narrating his own death: “I can hear it going through the vein — I can taste it,” he said, before describing a burning in his right arm. “I don’t feel anything in the left,” he added. At 6:35, he began snoring. Twelve minutes later, he died.

In the past, he’d always managed to eke out last-minute stays before each of his last five scheduled death dates - and for months he was skeptical that the Aug. 21 execution could really come to pass. “I don’t believe you’re going to kill me,” he told the Houston Chronicle in May, likening the case against him to a house of cards. “I believe I will pull that one single card and it’s gonna come tumbling down.”

But just before 6 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court denied his final appeal and Swearingen’s hope for reprieve faded. The condemned man’s lawyers repeatedly decried the case as a wrongful conviction built on “junk science” and circumstantial evidence that they say left behind unanswered questions about everything from the expert testimony to cellphone forensics. “They may put Larry Swearingen under,” said Houston-based attorney James Rytting said before the execution. “But his case is not going to die.”

Still, Montgomery County prosecutors were confident in their conviction and the “mountain” of evidence against him - as was Sandy Trotter, the slain teen’s mother. For her, there was never a doubt who did it. “There are no winners in this,” she said Tuesday. “We’ll never have Melissa back.”...

In December of 1998, Melissa Trotter was a student at Montgomery College, where she hoped to hone her foreign language skills and eventually pursue a career in business. Before that she’d taught at vacation Bible school and grown into a “typical 19-year-old,” according to her mother.

She met Swearingen, eight years her senior, around town — “here and there,” by his account. They struck up a casual relationship. “The evidence really did establish the friendship,” Swearingen said, “and then they turned it into murder to support their conviction.”

The two were spotted together in the college library on Dec. 8, 1998 - the day the teen disappeared. A biology teacher saw Trotter leaving campus with a man, but Swearingen has maintained it wasn’t him. And, though forensic evidence later showed the teen had been in his car, Swearingen said it wasn’t necessarily that day.

During trial, the former electrician’s wife testified that she came home that evening to find their trailer a mess. In the middle of it all were Trotter’s lighter and a pack of her brand of cigarettes. The unexpected disarray could have been the sign of a struggle, but Swearingen chalked it up to a break-in, and later filed a police report saying his home had been burgled while he was gone.

But aside from the cigarettes and the chaos, authorities eventually found half a pair of pantyhose, which state experts later said matched the hosiery wrapped around Trotter’s neck. Hunters only found her decomposing body in the woods weeks later, but by that time authorities in Galveston had already arrested Swearingen for outstanding traffic tickets.

In the summer of 2000, he was sentenced to death. Following his conviction, Swearingen’s legal team strove to dismantle the case against him, which was always circumstantial: There was never any biological evidence tying Swearingen to the slaying.

August 21, 2019 at 10:37 PM | Permalink

Comments

Whenever I read the words "I have no doubt", stated by a prosecutor or assistant district attorney in a death penalty case, I want to hide and cringe on their behalf. Too many times these people cling to their personal "gut feeling" rather than go the extra mile to substantiate the opinion with conclusive evidence. As has been stated, this case is riddled both with circumstantial evidence and contestible evidence. Is that really the basis for execution? And they wonder why there is so much growing opposition to the death penalty.

Posted by: peter | Aug 22, 2019 7:06:54 AM

You know, criminals lie.

Posted by: Mark W. | Aug 22, 2019 7:19:45 AM

As a general matter, the most important criterion for an execution should be certainty that the condemned person is in fact guilty.

I don't know the case and have no idea if the State had it right or not. I certainly hope it did.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Aug 22, 2019 8:14:01 AM

"You know, criminals lie."

Indeed, they do. I'm just trying to figure out whether you are referring with your remark to the police, the prosecutor, or the judge...

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 22, 2019 10:58:40 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB