Larry Swearingen. Photo: Alex Hannaford
Just over a year ago, in January 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry marked a gruesome milestone: with 239 executions under his belt, he had officially overseen half of all executions carried out in that state since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Since then, Texas has killed fourteen inmates, solidifying Perry’s position as the governor who has presided over the most executions in history. To date, 492 prisoners have been put to death since the state’s death chamber roared back to life in 1982. By the time this issue of The Nation hits newsstands, the number will likely be 493.
Amid so much state-sanctioned killing there is scant official acknowledgment that the state’s capital punishment system is fraught with problems. As the body count rises, nagging evidence points to the possibility that Texas has executed at least one innocent person, and may be poised to kill more. The arson-murder case of Cameron Todd Willingham, killed in 2004, is the best known, but there are many other cases that raise serious questions about the guilt of people on Texas’ death row.
As it moves down the roster of executions scheduled for this year, the state is perilously close to adding another name to its list of potential innocents: Larry Swearingen, whose case highlights a growing tension in Texas between science and the law. Add to that conflict the all-too-familiar problems of prosecutorial bias and tough-on-crime politics, and you’ve got a recipe for wrongful conviction that, when death is involved, can’t ever be remedied.
In Swearingen’s case, the courts have demonstrated little tolerance for scientific questions that are not only central to his guilt or innocence, but that have implications for every single death investigation in the state. Until Texas courts— particularly the state’s highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA)—accept that understanding science is key to doing justice, the risk that innocent men and women will be locked up, or worse, is inevitable. And in the absence of such a eureka moment, Swearingen, whose latest execution date was February 27, will die despite serious unresolved questions about his guilt.
Swearingen was sent to death row for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, a community college student in Montgomery County, just north of Houston. Trotter disappeared from campus on December 8, 1998. Her body was found on January 2, in the piney woods of the Sam Houston National Forest. She had been strangled, a section of pantyhose knotted around her neck.
Although more than three weeks had passed since she disappeared, police were certain from the beginning she was dead, and equally certain they’d found the man who had murdered her: Larry Swearingen, a 27-year-old married electrician who had been among the last to see Trotter alive. The two were acquaintances and had spoken on campus the day she disappeared. Police arrested Swearingen on unrelated outstanding warrants three days after Trotter’s disappearance; he has been behind bars ever since.
* * *
Swearingen has always said he did not kill Trotter. His claim of innocence is supported by the opinion of a number of influential Texas pathologists—together responsible for thousands of death investigations every year—who say that scientific evidence proves that Trotter had not been dead very long when her body was found. If that’s the case, then Swearingen could not have killed her, since he would have been in jail when she died. The central question— low long Trotter had been dead—hinges on histology samples collected during her autopsy and saved in a paraffin block. Veteran pathologists who have reviewed the evidence agree that the samples of Trotter’s lung, heart and vascular tissues reveal intact structures that would have broken down had her body really been left in the forest for nearly a month.