After years of courtroom wrangling, lawyers from both sides are finally agreeing to move forward with DNA testing in the 1998 rape and murder of Montgomery College student Melissa Trotter.
The agreement, expected to be finalized in court papers in the coming weeks, comes just days after a judge called off the pending execution of death row inmate Larry Swearingen, who was convicted in the slaying nearly two decades ago and has since repeatedly professed his innocence.
“They’re doing the right thing,” defense attorney James Rytting said Sunday, pointing to another death row inmate’s alleged plan to confess to the crime as evidence of the need for testing.
A lab would likely evaluate the rape kit, the ligature used to strangle Trotter, finger nail scrapings and hair.
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“We’re still working out the details, but I’m excited that Mr. Rytting has finally agreed to allow us to test this DNA,” Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said Sunday. “I’m glad to be moving forward on this matter.”
Years-long legal battles over DNA testing have become a hallmark of Swearingen’s case, which even sparked changes to state laws regarding post-conviction DNA testing in 2015. Both sides have pushed for DNA testing at times, but always using different legal mechanisms and never in agreement.
At least twice, a trial court judge sided with Swearingen’s testing requests – but each time the state slapped down the lower court’s move, ruling that new DNA wouldn’t be enough to counter the “mountain of evidence” pointing to Swearingen’s guilt.
In 2013, prosecutors filed a failed bid for DNA testing, but the defense opposed.
Now, though, an alleged death row confession plot that could have seen another convicted killer confess to Trotter’s death has sparked new interest in testing.
“Both sides now recognize that there’s a need to test the evidence,” Rytting said.
Swearingen and Trotter were seen in the college’s library together on Dec. 8, 1998 – the day of the teen’s disappearance. Afterward, a biology teacher spotted Trotter leaving the school with a man.
Hair and fiber evidence later showed that she’d been in Swearingen’s car before she vanished.
The killer’s wife testified that she came home that evening to find the place in disarray – and in the middle of it all were a lighter and cigarettes believed to belong to Trotter. Swearingen later filed a false burglary report, claiming his home had been broken into while he was out of town.
That afternoon, Swearingen placed a call routed through a cell tower near FM 1097 in Willis – a spot he would have passed while heading from his house to the Sam Houston National Forest where Trotter’s decomposing body was found 25 days later.
Swearingen was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000, but on Friday a judge approved calling off his Nov. 16 death date – the fifth one scheduled in the case – as a result of a filing snafu.
Back in August,, the Montgomery County District Clerk sent notice of the November execution scheduling to the Office of the Attorney General’s writ office instead of to the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. Because the law requires notice to the OCFW – which defends death row convicts – to be mailed within two days of the setting of an execution, the date had to be called off. It has not been rescheduled.
Swearingen’s attorneys first pointed out the problem in court papers on Wednesday, filing a motion to withdraw the execution in light of the mistake.
But aside from the clerical issues, Rytting also requested calling off the execution in order “to investigate newly discovered information suggesting that Anthony Shore – a convicted serial killer – has confessed to the murder of Melissa Trotter,” according to court papers.
“Mr. Swearingen will seek to depose Mr. Shore in order to preserve his testimony regarding the nature of any confessions he made, to obtain a DNA sample, and to obtain all other relevant information including documents, recordings and any other evidence concerning Mr. Shore’s connection to Ms. Trotter’s murder.”
Word of the alleged confession scheme emerged on the eve of Shore’s scheduled execution on Oct. 18.
Hours before he was scheduled to die, Shore won a 90-day stay after prosecutors said the four-time killer admitted to an abandoned plan to admit to Swearingen’s crime.
Officials first found out about the possibility of a last-minute confession attempt back in July, when a death row cell search uncovered materials relating to Trotter’s killing – including a hand-drawn map marking the supposed location of more evidence – stashed in Shore’s cell.
The day before his scheduled execution, Shore told investigators he’d only considered confessing to get his friend off, and not because he’d actually committed the additional crime. The multiple murderer also agreed to answer questions about other cases, and a judge greenlit pushing back his first scheduled execution date. He is now slated to die by lethal injection on Jan. 18.