swearingen

Swearingen requests hearing on DNA testing; DA’s office focused on execution date


march 15,2014

Attorneys for convicted killer Larry Ray Swearingen filed opposition to the state’s motion to set an execution date, arguing the Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for further proceedings.

A motion was filed in early March with the state of Texas for a tentative execution date of April 24. However, Swearingen “respectfully” requested a hearing in the 9th state District Court of Judge Kelly Case the week of May 12.

That hearing, if approved, would consider the effect of the appeals court’s remand on DNA testing, as well as the state’s request for an execution date, said James Rytting, Swearingen’s attorney.

“If they (the CCA) wanted to issue an execution date they could have established one by themselves,” Rytting said.

Swearingen was convicted for the murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. She was last seen leaving the Montgomery College campus with Swearingen on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was found by hunters in the Sam Houston National Forest Jan. 2, 1999, north of Lake Conroe.

Trotter’s death was determined to be a homicide, and that she was sexually assaulted then strangled by piece of pantyhose.

Bill Delmore, appellate attorney with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said Swearingen’s attorneys have started “grasping at straws.”

In their opposition to the state’s request for an execution date, Swearingen’s attorneys contend where the Court of Criminal Appeals has remanded the case for additional proceedings, it “would be an abuse of discretion” to ignore the “plain language” of the opinion issued by the appellate court in this case and instead set an execution date.

However, Delmore said Swearingen’s case was remanded back to the district court in Montgomery County to deny future requests for DNA testing, and to set an execution date.

A briefing schedule for both parties regarding the effect of the appeals court’s remand was suggested by Rytting on or before May 2.

(yourhoustonnews)

TEXAS – CCA Denies DNA Testing in Swearingen Case


UPDATE

 

Court Reverses DNA Testing Decision in Swearingen Case

The state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday unanimously reversed a lower court’s decision to allow further DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Larry Swearingen, sending his case back to a district court for further proceedings.

Swearingen was sentenced to death in 2000 after he was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing 19-year-old Melissa Trotter in Montgomery County. His lawyers say DNA testing on evidence found near Trotter’s body could prove his innocence, but prosecutors say further testing is unnecessary.

James Rytting, a lawyer representing Swearingen, said he would revisit the present motion for further DNA testing now that the case is before the district court once again.

“They remanded it,” Rytting said of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision. “They didn’t say DNA testing is completely forbidden.”

Bill Delmore, the Montgomery County assistant district attorney prosecuting Swearingen’s case, said he would ask the court to set another execution date, adding that there was a “mountain of evidence” of Swearingen’s guilt.

“Here we are, back where we started,” he said.

february 5, 2014

Death row inmate Larry Swearingen cannot prove that biological materials exist on evidence connected to the 1998 murder of Melissa Trotter – including on the alleged murder weapon – and therefore is not entitled to DNA testing of those items, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this morning.

Swearingen was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Trotter, a Montgomery County community college student who disappeared from her college campus on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was found several weeks later, by a group of hunters, in the Sam Houston National Forest near Lake Conroe.

Swearingen was seen with Trotter on campus not long before she disappeared. He has maintained his innocence and has been seeking DNA testing for a decade. Among the never-before-tested items of evidence are two lengths of pantyhose – one used to strangle Trotter, found around her neck, the other later found by Swearingen’s former landlord inside a house Swearingen and his wife had previously rented from the man.

The state maintains that visual comparison proves the two pieces came from a single pair of hose. Neither piece has ever been subjected to DNA analysis.

In ruling against Swearingen on Wednesday, Judge Paul Womack wrote for the unanimous court that a district court ruling that last year approved the requested DNA testing would be overturned because Swearingen “cannot prove the existence of biological material” that could be tested. Although the defense presented to the district court expert testimony that biological evidence would “likely” be found on the pantyhose that is not enough to secure testing, the court ruled. “[W]e have explicitly held that appellee must prove biological material exists and not that it is merely probable.”

In other words, without testing, there can be no testing.

The court’s conclusion also precludes any testing of cigarette butts found near Trotter’s body or of Trotter’s clothes, absent a showing that biological material exists on each item.

Only finger nail scrapings taken from Trotter are considered “biological evidence per se” and thus not restricted by the need to prove DNA exists before testing can be done. Only some of the collected scrapings were tested, and material found from under one of Trotter’s fingernails produced DNA from an unknown male.

Still, that result is not enough to convince the court that if additional testing were to be performed it would do anything to convince a jury of Swearingen’s innocence. “In order to be entitled to DNA testing,” Womack wrote for the court, “[Swearingen] must show by a preponderance of the evidence (51%) that he would not have been convicted if the exculpatory results were available at trial.”

Indeed, the unidentified profile previously identified was presented to Swearingen’s jury, the court notes, apparently without effect. “Since the jury already was aware that an unidentified male’s DNA was found under the victim’s fingernails, we fail to see how other such results would have changed its verdict,” Womack wrote. “The jury chose to believe that the foreign DNA either was contamination or that it came rom outside the context of the crime.” In short, the court concluded, Swearingen “cannot show that new testing would lead to a different result.”

During a December hearing on the matter before the CCA, Montgomery County prosecutor Bill Delmore told the court that the mountain of circumstantial evidence against Swearingen is insurmountable and that even if further DNA testing revealed additional evidence from another male – even from a known “serial killer” – that he would conclude only that Swearingen had an accomplice. “Nothing will ever convince me of his innocence,” Delmore said.

Justice is debatable in Texas death penalty case – Larry Swearingen


November 12,2012 http://www.dw.de

Larry Swearingen faces imminent execution in Texas for a crime that forensic scientists say he could not have committed. His time is running out.

Larry Swearingen at the visitors center on Death Row (Allen B. Polunksy Unit, Texas)

In his 12 years on death row, Larry Swearingen’s execution date has been set three times. Three times he has known when he will be strapped to a stretcher and put down with drugs: sodium thiobarbital to anesthetize him, pancurium bromide to paralyze his muscles and potassium chloride to stop his heart.

In January 2009, he had written his goodbyes and was on his way to the chamber when the stay of execution came through. “The way I had to look at it was ‘I’m just gonna lay down and go to sleep,'” he said. “I wasn’t gonna grovel. I wasn’t gonna sit there and cry. I can’t be remorseful for a crime I didn’t commit.”

Swearingen lives at the Allan B. Polunsky unit, an hour or so north of Houston, together with around 300 men and women awaiting execution for capital crimes committed in Texas. He is kept in solitary confinement 24 hours a day, in a cell not quite four meters long (13 feet) and a little over two meters wide, with a slit above head height, more a vent than a window.

Swearingen is strikingly calm, his voice rarely rising, even as he complains about the injustice of being locked up for a murder that forensic science shows he cannot have committed. “It’s not easy being here,” he says. “There are men who are hanging themselves, men who are cutting themselves, men sitting in their own feces, men slowly losing their minds. If people think it’s easy they are sadly mistaken.”

supporters of the death penalty argue that the USA’s appeals system is so thorough that no innocent person has ever been executed.

In recent years, that faith has been shaken by a number of high-profile cases. Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for setting the house fire that killed his two young daughters, despite several of the country’s most prominent arson investigators testifying that the blaze almost certainly started by accident. Troy Davis went to the chamber in Georgia for shooting a policeman, despite a lack of DNA evidence and seven out of the nine prosecution witnesses later changing their stories.

Swearingen’s case is different, in that forensic science provides him with an alibi: He cannot have raped and murdered his supposed victim, because he was already in prison when she was killed.

Open-and-shut case?

Melissa Trotter disappeared on December 8, 1998. Swearingen was one of the last people to see her alive, at Montgomery College. Three days later police picked him up on outstanding arrest warrants for minor offences, put him in jail and began to build a case against him.

Trotter’s body was discovered on January 2, 1999, in the Sam Houston National Forest, by hunters looking for a lost gun. At first glance, they thought it was a mannequin, dumped in the woods. She was wearing jeans, but her torso was naked. She had been strangled with one leg of a pair of tights. A search team, with cadaver dogs, had passed within 20 meters of the spot a fortnight earlier and found nothing.

At the autopsy, with the district attorney and two of his sheriffs in the room, Harris County’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter, estimated that she had been dead for around 25 days, which meant she had been killed the day she went missing.

When Carter repeated this at the trial, the defense team let it pass unchallenged. Jurors heard that Swearingen had a history of violence towards women, that he had repeatedly lied to police, that hairs forcibly removed from Trotter’s head were recovered from his truck and that the other leg of the pair of tights used to kill her was found in his house.

They were not told that the tights appeared during a fourth police visit to the property, after three prior searches had turned up nothing. The DNA under Trotter’s fingernails, belonging to somebody other than Swearingen, was dismissed as a contaminant – perhaps a drop of blood from a cut in a forensic technician’s hand.

The jury took less than two hours to find Swearingen guilty.

Science vs. the courts

Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, chief medical examiner for nearby Galveston County, says the autopsy results aren’t credible. Although there were signs of decomposition around Trotter’s head, her corpse was in remarkably good condition.

For many days, where she was found, it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit [22 degrees Celsius],” he said. “If you’re at that temperature for three days, you’re green, bloated and stinky. Her internal organs look beautiful.”

At the morgue, her heart, liver, lungs and spleen were remarkably intact.

Pustilnik said the body could not have been dead for 25 days. Several other forensic scientists called by the defense team have come to the same conclusion. It means that Swearingen could not have killed Trotter, because he was already in jail when she died.

Final hearing

I returned to Montgomery County for Swearingen’s final evidentiary hearing. The case has been going back and forth between Judge Fred Edwards and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) for years: Each time, Edwards has upheld Swearingen’s conviction and each time the appeals court has granted the defense one more hearing. This was categorically his last.

Swearingen sat with his defense team, feet shackled together, wearing a striped Montgomery County Jail jumpsuit. In the pews on the right, behind the district attorney’s table, Sandy and Charlie Trotter were surrounded by supporters holding pictures of Melissa. They are convinced Swearingen is guilty and need him to be gone, so they can grieve in peace. Sandy handed me a photograph of her daughter, but was too upset to talk.

The benches on the left were empty, apart from a couple of local newspaper reporters and a frail-looking woman taking notes. Pam Martinez, Swearingen’s mother, attended every day of the hearing, even though she had recently had heart surgery for the second time.

“My cardiologist tells me that I need to cut the stress out,” she said. “I would like to cut the stress, but I support my son. He’s my child and I want to protect him.”

‘Innocence doesn’t matter’

This time, too, Judge Edward upheld the conviction. Now the case goes back to the TCCA. If the panel again upholds Swearingen’s conviction, he will have run out of options. His “actual innocence” petition to the Supreme Court has been denied. Any further appeals will be summarily rejected. A new execution date will be set and, barring an unprecedented last-minute pardon, he will be taken to the execution chamber at Huntsville and put down.Swearingen knows his chances are slim. “Under federal law in the United States being innocent does not matter,” he said. “If being innocent makes no difference, this country is no better than Iran or Syria, these third-world countries that kill their own citizens. How can being innocent not matter?”

The TCCA’s ruling is expected in the coming months.

TEXAS – Larry Swearingen back in court


                                                   http://www.myfoxhouston.com/video/videoplayer.swf?dppversion=11212

Swearingen official website 

        Swearingen Legal documents (pdf)

A defense expert in the hearing of convicted killer Larry Ray Swearingen reluctantly agreed with prosecutors Thursday that histology – the study of microscopic cell tissue – isn’t an accepted method to determine the time of death in a body.

Meanwhile, defense attorney Stephen Jackson accused the state of asking a “trick question” and stressed the science is valid.

“If the (science) was not well-based, it would have been excluded by now (by state District Court Judge Fred Edwards). And that hasn’t happened,” Jackson said.

The hearing, which began Monday in Edwards’ 9th state District Court, was ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in July 2011 to hear Swearingen’s claim of innocence.

Like the first three days, the fourth day of the hearing focused on the condition of Trotter’s body when it was found. The defense argued the condition of the body and, more important, microscopic slides of Trotter’s heart and liver, prove she could not have died 22-25 days prior to discovery.

However, during cross-examination of Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik, the prosecution challenged the validity of histology in determining the postmortem interval – the time from death to when a body is found.

On more than one occasion, Special Prosecutor Lyn McClelland asked Pustilnik to examine several books on forensic pathology and see if Pustilnik could locate “any reference in any book” that connects the use of histology to determine PMI.

“They don’t exist,” Pustilnik said.

“The defense’s position is not valid science,” Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said.

The hearing resumes Monday with the prosecution to present its experts.

Swearingen’s Claim

Larry Ray Swearingen, 40, was sentenced in 2000 to die by lethal injection for the murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter of Willis. Since then, he has received three stays from execution. He claims he couldn’t have killed Trotter because he was in jail on Dec. 11, 1998. Trotter disappeared on Dec. 8, 1998 and her body was found on Jan. 2, 1999 in the Sam Houston National Forest.

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March 9 2012

 photo by Eric S. Swist

The canopy of trees so prevalent in the Sam Houston National Forest played a role in the condition of Melissa Trotter’s body when found 25 days after her disappearance, a meteorological expert testified Thursday.

Richard Grant, a professor at Purdue University, said the temperature at tree-top level is not dissimilar to the temperature in an open field.

However, Grant, an expert on microclimate, said the solar heat is diffused as it works its way to the forest floor.

Approximately 20 percent of the solar energy reaches the bottom of the forest, he said.

Questioned by prosecutor Warren Diepraam, Grant testified the temperatures on a forest floor tend to be more consistent than in a more open environment.

“The heat transfer is lower,” Grant said. “The temperature of the (forest) can’t be the same as an open field.”

Testimony in the hearing is expected to conclude today. Edwards may issue a ruling or send all evidence and testimony to the TTCA. Either way, a determination is not expected before a couple of months.

Source : http://www.yourhoustonnews.com

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March 8 2012

The battle of the experts continued Wednesday at the hearing of convicted killer Larry Ray Swearingen.

Forensic Entomologist Neal Haskell testified under cross-examination that he could extract a time of death based on DNA, weather data and autopsy photographs.

Prosecutor Warren Diepraam asked Haskell if the forensic evidence he was shown Wednesday was consistent with the condition of Trotter’s body found 25 days after her disappearance.

Haskell agreed.

Later in the day, Sibyl Bucheli, of Sam Houston State University, was called to the stand to testify about the decomposition of the human body.

Bucheli said data obtained at SHSU proved to be “entirely” consistent with the decomposition of Trotter’s body, Diepraam said.

“She (Bucheli) showed (Trotter’s) internal organs didn’t turn to mush as the defense alleged,” he said.

Defense attorney Stephen Jackson challenged Bucheli’s qualifications.

“She just received a PhD in Philosophy from Ohio State,” Jackson said. “She cherry-picked a body (at SHSU) that is not consistent with 17 days of 20-degree weather when the temperature was up in the 70s. It’s apples to oranges.”

The hearing is expected to conclude today.

source : http://www.yourhoustonnews.com

March 6 2012

The former Harris County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy in the Larry Swearingen murder case testified on Tuesday that his attorney misrepresented her opinion.

Dr. Joye M. Carter said during an evidentiary hearing that she did not reverse her opinion concerning how long Melissa Trotter‘s body had been in the Sam Houston National Forest, as Swearingen’s attorneyJames Rytting claimed in a 2007 affidavit.

Swearingen received a stay of execution after Rytting cited the affidavit in an appeal. He is on death row for the strangulation and sexual assault of Trotter, 19, who went missing on Dec. 8, 1998, from Lone Star College-Montgomery. Her body was discovered 25 days later.

During the 2000 trial, Carter testified the body had been in the woods for 25 days or so, placing the time of death on Dec. 8.

But Rytting tried to get Carter to say the wording in the affidavit indicated that the body was in the woods a maximum of 14 days, placing the time of death on or after Dec. 12.

Swearingen contends he could not have killed Trotter because he was in jail on Dec. 11 on an unrelated charge.

The hearing will determine whether Swearingen should receive a new trial.

http://www.larry-swearingen.com/attachments/File/Affidavit_of_Jerald_Crow_(2007).pdf