Yesterday, July 28, 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution of Larry Swearingen. He was scheduled to be executed on August 18 for the 1998 rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, a student at Montgomery Community College. Her body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest on January 2, 1999, nearly a month after she disappeared from campus.
According to the Texas Tribune (“Criminal Appeals Court Grants Rare Execution Stay,” July 28, 2011):
Swearingen’s lawyers have filed repeated pleas in state and federal court urging jurists to consider their arguments that forensic science proves that the 40-year-old inmate could not have committed the crime, because he was in jail when Trotter was murdered.
Swearingen was arrested on Dec. 11, 1998 — three days after Trotter disappeared — on unrelated traffic warrants. He has been incarcerated ever since.
Swearingen admits he had lunch with Trotter the day she disappeared, and he said the two were friends and had sexual encounters. But he is adamant he did not rape and murder her.
“The district attorney took evidence of a friendship and turned it into a murder,” Swearingen said in an interview with the Tribune at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston a day before the stay was issued.
Entomologists, pathologists and an anthropologist who examined the evidence from Trotter’s body have said that she could not have been in the forest for longer than two weeks. Her body, the experts report, showed only enough decomposition to have been in the woods for a few days to, and at most, two weeks. That means her murder would have happened after Swearingen was jailed.
In 2007, Dr. Joye Carter, the Harris County medical examiner who testified at Swearingen’s trial that Trotter had been in the forest for 25 days, reviewed new evidence and submitted an affidavit in which she concluded the murder happened within two weeks of the day Trotter’s body was discovered.
James Rytting, Swearingen’s lawyer, said he hopes the stay will give defense lawyers the opportunity to have a full court hearing on the forensic science.
Read the full story in the Texas Tribune.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit granted a stay of execution to Larry Swearingen on January 26, 2009, the day before his scheduled execution, based on new forensic evidence. Prosecutors originally theorized that Trotter had been dead for 25 days when her body was found, but new examinations suggest this is timeframe is impossible based on the preservation of her body. That stay was allowed to grant further review of his second habeas petition for a new trial.