College student killer get reprieve
A federal appeals court on Monday stopped this week's scheduled execution
of a man condemned for abducting, raping and strangling a 19-year-old
suburban Houston woman 10 years ago.
Larry Swearingen, 37, faced lethal injection Tuesday evening for the death
of Melissa Trotter, whose body was found Jan. 2, 1999, in the Sam Houston
National Forest south of Huntsville. The discovery came 25 days after she
was last seen leaving the library at Montgomery College near Conroe.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reprieve came in response to
questions from Swearingen's attorneys about the timing of Trotter's death.
Swearingen insisted he couldn't have killed the woman because he was in
jail for outstanding traffic warrants when newly evaluated forensic
evidence indicates her body was dumped in the woods not far from his home.
Swearingen's lawyer, James Rytting, said he was told of the ruling by the
court but hadn't seen it at midday Monday.
"I can't jump up and down yet because I don't know what it says," he said.
"I just don't know how long it's going to be before we have to go through
this stuff again."
Swearingen would have been the fourth condemned prisoner executed this
year. 2 more executions are scheduled later this week in the nation's most
active death penalty state.
"This is unique," Swearingen told The Associated Press last week from
death row last week. "How many cases happen after a defendant is in jail?"
Prosecutors had opposed efforts by Swearingen's lawyers to the New
Orleans-based 5th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rytting contended deterioration of Trotter's body would have been much
more severe than it was when found, raising the possibility somebody else
dumped it in the woods.
A medical examiner testified at Swearingen's trial in 2000 that she
believed Trotter was killed the same day she disappeared. But seven years
later, the coroner submitted an affidavit changing her opinion, basing her
judgment on temperature data compiled by Swearingen's defense. The new
opinion, also supported by other forensic experts, said Trotter's body was
in the woods for considerably less than 25 days.
The appeals court said Swearingen's due process rights were violated
because prosecutors "sponsored the false or misleading testimony" from the
medical examiner and that if she had been provided additional information
from them she could have testified more accurately about the timing of the
victim's death. The court, in returning the appeal to a federal district
judge for review, also said Swearingen's trial lawyers should have better
cross-examined the coroner and developed evidence from Trotter's body
Judge Jacques Wiener Jr. wrote a concurring opinion "to address the
elephant that I perceive in the corner of this room: actual innocence."
"I conceive the real possibility that the district court to which we
return this case today could view the newly discovered medical expert
reports as clear and convincing evidence that the victim in this case
could not possibly have been killed by the defendant," Wiener said.
The judge, however, complained that under existing Supreme Court rulings,
lower federal courts faced with actual innocence claims may have no choice
but to deny relief to someone who is actually innocent. Wiener said the
full 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court may want to clarify the issue and
use Swearingen's case as the precedent.
"Someone else killed the girl," Rytting said. "It's impossible
(Swearingen) threw that body in the woods."
Similar appeals pointing to forensic evidence discrepancies were rejected
in state courts.
State lawyers said temperature data cited by the inmate is not accurate
for the crime scene because it was taken at airports miles away.
Swearingen was arrested 3 days after Trotter was last seen. At his trial,
he said Trotter met him at the college campus the day of her disappearance
but they both left separately. Witnesses said she left the library with
him. The 2 had met 2 days earlier at a Lake Conroe marina.
Evidence showed Trotter was in Swearingen's trailer in Willis and in his
pickup truck, where detectives found hair that had been forcibly pulled
from her head. Another section of the pantyhose used to strangle Trotter
was found in the trash outside Swearingen's trailer.
Cigarettes found in his home matched the brand the victim smoked.
Swearingen said his now ex-wife smoked the same brand.
Cell phone records from the day Trotter vanished showed he was in the area
where her body eventually was discovered.
Swearingen had a history of at least 2 accusations of rape plus an
allegation of assault on an ex-wife, but charges never were brought
against him. He had a previous conviction for burglary when he was 18, for
which he spent 3 days in jail and 3 years on probation.
"I'm not a choir boy," he said. "Like everybody, I have skeletons in my
closet. But being a knucklehead doesn't equate to being a killer."
2 years ago, a day before he was set to die, the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals halted the punishment after his lawyers said specific insects at
the site where the body was found raised questions about the timing of
Trotter's death. That appeal ultimately was rejected.
On Wednesday, Virgil Martinez, 40, is set to die for a 1996 shooting
rampage that left 4 people dead, including his ex-girlfriend and her 3-
and 6-year-old children. On Thursday, Ricardo Ortiz, 46, was scheduled for
execution for fatally injecting a fellow inmate with heroin in 1999 at the
El Paso County Jail to stop the victim from testifying against him in a
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Texas death row inmate Larry Swearingen gets reprieve
A federal appeals court has granted a last-minute reprieve to a Texas man
facing execution in the murder of a Houston-area college student, his
Larry Swearingen was set to be executed Tuesday for a murder that several
pathologists — including the case's original medical examiner – now say
he could not have committed.
He was convicted of the 1998 rape, abduction and murder of Melissa
Trotter, a 19-year-old who was strangled and left in the woods.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Documentary on death row chaplain
As the lights went low, students and alumni of the Victoria College leaned
back in their seats as they prepared to view "At the Death House Door."
Victoria native and best selling author Rev. Carroll Pickett presented the
documentary based on his 15 years as the death house chaplain to the
infamous Walls prison unit in Huntsville.
The VC alumni presented a free screening of the documentary as a part of
Pirates Day Monday.
"We thought bringing Rev. Carroll Pickett, alumni, and showing the
documentary would be great for Pirates Day," said Kimberly Haschke, VC
director of marketing and communications.
The 90 minute documentary is based on the 95 inmates Pickett was chaplain
to before they were executed by lethal injection.
"Out of the 95 inmates that were executed I believe 15 were innocent,"
The documentary came about when Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, two
investigative reporters for the Chicago Tribune, approached Pickett about
inmate Carlos DeLuna's last day. Mills and Possley believed DeLuna was
"I recorded what the inmates would tell me and then I would put the tape
in it's case and put it away," he said. "I never intended for anyone to
hear, see or even know that those tapes existed."
The reporters wanted to know if DeLuna maintained his innocence or if he
had confessed to murdering the clerk at a drive through store in Corpus
Christi on his last day.
"I was not sure if I could trust them, but after a few months of working
with them, I knew they were only interested in the facts and not a
Hollywood story," Pickett said.
None of Pickett's family knew about the 95 tapes he kept hidden. Being
able to record his thoughts and what inmates told him was his way of not
keeping everything bottled up, he said.
"If I would have not made those recordings, I would have lost it," Pickett
said. "Everything they told me was confidential and I could not tell
After the screening viewers had the opportunity to ask Pickett questions
about his days as death row chaplain.
"I did not meet the inmates until the day of their execution," he said.
Some students felt there is nothing wrong with the execution and that
there is no reason to not carry out death penalties.
"I cannot disagree with you," Pickett said. "But the possibility of
murdering innocent people is the biggest crime."
(source: Victoria Advocate)
Photographer finds forgiveness on death row
Forgiveness on Texas' Death Row- January 23rd, 2009–John Holbrook will
lecture and exhibit his work at Southern Methodist University on Thursday,
January 29th at 7:00pm at the McCord Auditorium located at 306 Dallas
John Holbrook, a former crime scene photographer, takes portraits of the
men and women on death row in Texas. Holbrook's project began as a way to
address his own trauma over seeing horrific crime scene images at work.
The message of Holbrook's work is ultimately about forgiveness and how it
can empower victims to move past traumatic events.
In the featured story, News 8 photojournalist, Doug Burgess, along with
reporter David Schechter, take you inside Texas' death row for a rare
glimpse at the people behind the headlines.
Holbrook will lecture and exhibit his work at Southern Methodist
University on Thursday, January 29th at 7 p.m. at the McCord Auditorium
located at 306 Dallas Hall.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Texas hires expert to study if fatal fire was indeed arson
In 2004, four fire experts told the Chicago Tribune that the fire that had
sent Cameron Todd Willingham to death row and later to his execution in
Texas might have been an accident rather than a crime.
Nearly 2 years later, a panel of 4 other experts who reviewed the case for
the Innocence Project came to a similar conclusion, saying the State of
Texas had convicted and executed Willingham based on forensic evidence
that no longer was considered scientifically valid.
Now what may be the final verdict on the fire, and on Willingham's
execution, will be delivered by a Maryland expert, who will examine the
evidence in the first state-sanctioned inquiry into a Texas execution.
Fire scientist Craig Beyler has been asked by the Texas Forensic Science
Commission to conduct an independent review of the case's forensic
"He appears to be one of the pre-eminent people in the fire and arson
investigation field," Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney and commission
member, said of Beyler.
Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization
responsible for scores of DNA exonerations, called the hiring of Beyler an
"encouraging sign" and said he hoped Beyler would be able to "get to the
bottom" of the case that sent Willingham to a lethal injection.
"It's essential that this matter is resolved for the sake of those who
have been wrongly convicted by unreliable arson evidence, as well as those
under investigation in new arson cases," said Scheck, the Innocence
The Innocence Project filed the complaint that prompted the commission's
inquiry. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004 for setting
the December 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters in the small
Texas town of Corsicana. He maintained his innocence at trial, through his
years on Death Row and before he was executed.
The Tribune investigated the case in late 2004. As part of its
investigation, the paper asked four fire experts from across the country
to review the forensic evidence; the four concluded the indicators of
arson that state and local officials cited in their case against
Willingham at his 1992 trial had been debunked by universally recognized
advances in fire science.
The experts said it was possible the fire at the Willingham home was an
accident, as Willingham had claimed.
The Innocence Project's experts, who performed the 2006 review at no cost,
came to the same conclusion. In one of its harshest criticisms of the
original investigation, the panel said the fire marshal's testimony at
Willingham's trial about the indicators of arson he said he found "means
The Forensic Science Commission was created in 2005 to investigate
allegations of forensic error and misconduct in the country's busiest
death-penalty state. The Willingham case is its 1st capital case.
Bassett said he hoped Beyler would be able to complete his review by early
April. Beyler will write a report and may make recommendations to the
It is not clear whether Beyler would conclude whether Willingham was
innocent. Even if he finds that the science used at the time was flawed,
as the other experts have, he may not take the next step and say Texas was
wrong to execute Willingham, though that would be the clear implication.
"If [Beyler's report] is critical of the arson testimony," said Bassett,
"then theoretically it's possible that could be the basis for a broader
conclusion about the original conviction."
The prosecution's evidence included a jailhouse informant named Johnny
Webb who testified Willingham, while both were behind bars, confided that
he had set the fire. Jailhouse informants, however, are considered by the
legal system as among the least credible witnesses. Such testimony has
played a role in numerous prosecutions in which inmates were later
Navarro County District Atty. R. Lowell Thompson, who was not in office
when Willingham was tried or executed, said he would cooperate with any
investigation but had not been contacted by the Forensic Science
Commission. He has not reviewed the case.
Beyler declined to comment.
(source: Chicago Tribune)
Harris County taking action to ease jail overcrowding—-Release of
low-risk offenders among possible options
Harris County's burgeoning jail population is expected to swell to 12,600
this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at
ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders.
The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal district court
judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers,
defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.
The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider
releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy
virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the
courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow
defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to
The number of people in jail who are awaiting trial has grown by about 64
prisoners a month for the past two years and has more than doubled since
2001, according to jail population figures prepared last summer by Sam
Houston State University criminal justice professor Charles Friel. His
projections for the population increase through May 2009 were based
largely on those numbers.
Studies also have shown that hundreds of homeless people with mental
illnesses cycle repeatedly through the jail and emergency psychiatric
The county's criminal district judges voted earlier this month to devote
one court to felony cases involving defendants diagnosed with
schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.
The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to
repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or
New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot
project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe
diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and
'We have to be creative'
Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian
Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with
judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for
reducing the inmate population.
"That's the ultimate answer to get some of these people out of the jail
and into other locales or in the free world where they're under monitored
supervision or enhanced bonding," Smith said.
District Judge Ruben Guerrero, a Democratic judge who was defeated in the
Republican sweeps of the 1990s, said he has always been willing to
consider personal bonds for the right defendants.
"We have to be creative and have personal bonds mixed in with surety
bonds," Guerrero said. "Also, we have to look at the individual cases
rather than say we're going to blanketly grant them."
The Harris County Jail is certified to hold a maximum of 9,435 inmates.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards temporarily has authorized the
detention of another 1,840 prisoners on so-called "variance beds,"
nonstandard metal-frame bunks on the floor.
The average daily jail population has grown from about 6,400 in the
2001-02 fiscal year to nearly 9,500 in 2007-08. Since last year, the
population generally has hovered around 11,000.
The county contracted to send several hundred prisoners to a Louisiana
jail in 2007 at a daily cost of about $38 per inmate. Commissioners Court
gave the sheriff permission to expand the contract to cover 1,730 inmates
However, many inmates do not qualify for a transfer due to illnesses or
upcoming court dates, Sheriffs Office budget manager Owen Parker told
county aides last week as they weighed the departments budget request for
the upcoming fiscal year.
Currently, only 950 inmates are housed in Louisiana.
Meeting Texas' mandatory staffing ratio of one guard for every 48
prisoners also has been a problem. The Sheriffs Office has spent $30
million for overtime at the jail this fiscal year to meet staffing
Building more jails
Former Sheriff Tommy Thomas postponed plans to build a new 1,100-bed jail
in Atascocita amid concerns he would not be able to fully staff the
Although jail staffing has improved, the economic crunch could make it
harder to move ahead with the $35 million project.
In November 2007, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build
a 2,500-bed jail downtown. Commissioners Court considered putting a new,
smaller request on last Novembers ballot, but decided against it.
Smith said it would be naive to think the county will never need a new
jail, given its booming population.
"But I also don't think we can build our way out of the overcrowding
issue," he added.
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett said he has not seen signs of a
policy shift, but is optimistic one is coming. Holding defendants who pose
no threat of hurting someone or fleeing keeps them from going to work and
caring for their families, he said. A lot of people plead guilty just to
get out of jail quickly, including some who probably are innocent, he
(source for both: Associated Press)