IS LARRY RAY SWEARINGEN INNOCENT?

Categories: Essays
Written By: Billy Sinclair

 

            On December 8, 1998 Melissa Trotter went missing in Montgomery County, Texas. Larry Ray Swearingen—an electrician from Willis, Texas—was arrested on December 11, 1998 on outstanding charges unrelated to Trotter’s disappearance Trotter’s body was found by hunters on January 2, 1999 in the Sam Houston National Forest. She had been strangled with a piece of pantyhose Swearingen was subsequently charged and indicted for the murder of Melissa Trotter. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in July 2000 for the Trotter murder.

            Since his conviction, Swearingen’s attorneys have waged a relentless legal battle to establish the condemned inmate’s innocence. These efforts got a significant boost in 2007 when former Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joyce Carter, who performed the autopsy on Trotter and testified at Swearingen’s trial that Trotter had died 25 days before her body was found, changed her opinion and said Trotter had been killed within 14 days of her body being found. Accepting Carter’s second opinion as valid, which the State did not and countered with its own experts to refute Carter’s new findings, Swearingen could not have killed Trotter because he was already in jail when she was killed under Dr. Carter’s revised death timeline.

            The Carter findings spurred Swearingen’s attorneys to push harder for additional guilt exoneration. They filed motions under Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing statute requesting more sophisticated testing of physical evidence—Trotter’s ripped jeans, the ligature, and other clothing items—for “touch” or “contact” DNA evidence. They also requested additional testing of material from fingernail scrapings of Trotter’s left and right hands. Finally, they requested DNA testing of a foreign pubic hair recovered during the “rape kit” examination of Trotter.

            The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on February 10, 2010 upheld the trial court’s refusal to order the additional DNA testing requested by Swearingen’s attorneys. With respect to the request for DNA testing of the any possible “touch” evidence on Trotter’s clothing and the ligature, the court of criminal appeals said this request should have been made earlier because the technology for such testing, which was not available at the time of Swearingen’s arrest, has been available for years and the request should have been made sooner. Further, the court said that even if the more advanced testing was conducted, it would not create a 51% chance that Swearingen would not have been convicted (as required by the post-conviction DNA statute) in light of all the other “overwhelming” evidence of guilt in the case.

            As for the pubic hair testing request, the appeals court pointed out that this evidence had been lost somewhere between collection and transmission to an FBI crime lab. Since Swearingen’s attorney could not show the State had acted in “bad faith” concerning the loss of the evidence claims as required by U.S. Supreme Court case law, the attorneys had presented nothing for the court to review.

            Finally, with respect to the dried blood flakes material found under the fingernails of Trotter’s left hand, the appeals court pointed out that testing by the Texas Department of Public Safety had put together a DNA profile and concluded the material did not belong to either Trotter or Swearingen. The DPS findings were loaded into a national database for DNA evidence collection. Swearingen’s attorneys requested that the State be forced to run a comparative analysis of the DPS findings with all the other DNA profiles in the database. The court rejected this request, saying the Texas post-conviction DNA statute does not require such a comparative analysis.

            Underlying the court of criminal appeals refusal to order additional DNA testing was the other “overwhelming” evidence of guilt against Swearingen as the court called it. The appeals court cited a comprehensive list of the incriminating evidence against Swearingen (much of which has also been cited by a federal district court in an earlier of ruling):

 

  • Swearingen was the last person Trotter was seen with alive (she was seen with him by three witnesses);
  • Two of Swearingen’s friends overheard Swearingen in a cell phone conversation on December 7 arranging a dinner meeting with Trotter on December 8;
  • Ms. Trotter had been in Swearingen’s truck where her forcibly removed hair follicles were found;
  • Trotter was in Swearingen’s house on the day she disappeared, the house was later found in disarray, and Swearingen falsely reported a burglary of the residence;
  • Documents belonging to Trotter were found near the residence of Swearingen’s parents;
  • Trotter’s cigarettes were found in Swearingen’s house;
  • Trotter was wearing the same clothes at the time of death as she wore on the day of her disappearance and a note given to her by a friend on December 8 was found in the back pocket of her jeans;
  • Swearingen’s cell phone records placed him near the location where Trotter’s body was found;
  • A half pair of pantyhose belonging to Swearingen’s former wife was found in Swearingen’s house while the other half was found wrapped around Trotter’s neck;
  • Contents from the last meal Trotter ate on the day of her disappearance were found in her stomach—a meal eaten with Swearingen;
  • Swearingen lied about his whereabouts on the day of Trotter’s disappearance, fled from the police, tried to fabricate an alibi, and made false police reports;
  • Swearingen asked others to lie on his behalf and told other people the police would be after him.
  • Swearingen crafted a letter written in Spanish in jail designed to deflect attention from himself—a letter which contained detailed specifics about Trotter’s murder which accurately corroborated the physical and medical evidence in the case.
  • Swearingen reportedly told other inmates, “fuck, yeah, I did it” and his only objective was to escape the death penalty; and
  • Trotter’s body was found in an area of the Sam Houston National Forest where Swearingen had frequented

 

I don’t know beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not Larry Ray Swearingen is guilty, but I do know there is a compelling body of evidence which is highly incriminating. Swearingen’s supporters rely heavily on the forensic evidence that Trotter’s body was in the woods no more than 14 days before it was discovered, and if so, Swearingen could not have killed her. The problem with forensic evidence today is that it is in scientific disarray. A significant number of DNA exonerations are attributable to what’s called “false forensics”—experts hired by the State to present forensic findings, no matter how unreliable or manufactured, that support the prosecution’s case.

In a February 2009 report titled “Badly Fragmented Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul: Evidence to Support Reliability of Many Techniques” by the National Academies underscored this point by saying that most forensic evidence testing procedures do not have meaningful scientific validation. So I don’t know if the testing procedures used in the determination that Trotter’s body was in the woods only 14 days instead of 25 days as the State contends have a reliable scientific validation. What I do know is that the circumstantial evidence in the Swearingen case, considered in its totality, makes a compelling case for guilt.

 

SOURCE:

 

Swearingen v. State, 2010 Tex.Crim.App. LEXIS 9 (Tex. Crim. App. Feb. 10, 2010)

18 Responses to “IS LARRY RAY SWEARINGEN INNOCENT?”

  1. joe bob Says:

    Yes, the circumstantial evidence does make a compelling case for Swearingen’s guilt, but it does not absolutely prove it. The state needs to find out who’s DNA that was under Trotter’s fingernails. To do anything else is a disgrace to the state and a potential miscarriage of justice.

  2. Jimi Streets Says:

    Just saw an “On the Case With Paula Zahn” episode about the case. Despite all of the evidence listed above, it seems to me that the newer findings at the very least justify a new trial. The man is on death row for crying out loud! When someone’s life is in the balance, even a criminal’s, there needs to be proof of guilt beyond a shadow of doubt.
    I am very much pro-death penalty as a means of punishment for murder. But to me, every possible doubt must be cleared up before he/she is executed. God knows there have been enough innocent people executed over the years and we as a society ought to take every opportunity to be sure before the condemned dies.

  3. Pastor Mike Says:

    It appears that there is enough evidence of guilt to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.” However, we are talking about a death penalty case. Therefore, I believe the death sentence must be stayed until the scientific evidence, which seems to show that the time of death is in question, can be fully addressed. In my view, an untimely request for further DNA testing should not be ignored and the execution should not proceed until the new scientific evidence is fully litigated and adjudicated. Something doesn’t add up right in this case! We are legally and morally obligated to reconcile the contradictory evidence. If not, then we are about legal procedure rather than justice. I’m of the conviction that “due process” means “full and complete due process.” If the forensic evidence is flawed, we need to admit it for this and other cases to come. Resolve the conflict once and for all!

  4. ken b Says:

    I think it would be appropriate for all you bleeding hearts to save a tear or two for Melisssa Trotter. She didn’t get to appeal her death sentence.

  5. Rev. D. Scheffey Says:

    First, my heart goes out to the Trotter Family. I hope you get justice one day. I do feel Larry is innocent and I pray he is able to prove himself.

  6. SWEARINGEN CASE HEATS UP “ACTUAL INNOCENCE” DEBATE Says:

    [...]            Larry Ray Swearingen, convicted of the 1999 murder of Melissa Trotter in Montgomery, was recently granted his third stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The appeals court said it needed more time to examine new forensic evidence by Swearingen’s attorney which casts doubt about his involvement in the Trotter murder. I wrote about this new evidence last year (here). [...]

  7. Jessica Says:

    Everyone leaves out the fact that Swearingen was abusive to multiple women before Melissa. This is provided by Court TV:

    “The relationship did not last, and shortly after his son’s birth in 1990, Swearingen married a woman who later gave birth to their daughter.

    But the relationship quickly soured as Swearingen’s violent streak emerged, according to the woman.

    “[Swearingen] would wait for her at the door of their home and when she arrived he would begin hitting her, and sometimes strangled her with hands,” court documents state.

    After the two separated in 1992, according to the woman, Swearingen showed up at her job and harassed her. During Swearingen’s penalty phase, the woman testified that she never reported the incidents for fear of losing custody of her daughter.

    In one instance, Swearingen allegedly abducted her at knifepoint and drove her to a wooded area, where he raped her.

    Another ex-girlfriend testified at his sentencing that she met him in 1994 at a Florida strip club and moved back with him to Texas. When she told him she planned to leave for California, he tied her up and threw her in a closet, she said.

    He then allegedly beat and threatened her with a knife as both her child and Swearingen’s son played in the yard.

    The woman testified that he freed her when his mother arrived. She fled the state and did not return to press charges or tell her story until her appearance at Swearingen’s sentencing.

    Less than three months before 18-year-old Melissa Trotter disappeared, another ex-fiancée complained to police that Swearingen had assaulted and raped her.

    According to court documents, Swearingen allegedly broke into her home, wrestled her to the ground, stuffed her mouth with newspaper and handcuffed her before beating and raping her.

    One week later, the woman testified, Swearingen fired a bullet through her window and forced her into his car at gunpoint.

    “[Swearingen] made [her] drive to a location within the Sam Houston National Forest that was approximately one mile from where Melissa’s body would someday be discovered,” court documents state. “She was able to appease Swearingen, and he eventually let her go.”

    Swearingen was arrested on the allegations and released on bond.”

    _________________________________________________________________

    It’s curious to say the least that these stories are always left out when all of the anti-death penalty folks begin fighting for his cause. My husband went to school with Larry. He saw him rough up a girl while he was still in high school, AT the school.

    Larry is guilty. The scientific evidence is not exact, guys. Experts from both sides adamantly support their own theories. Check out the prosecutions evidence…it hints at guilt and contradicts what the defense experts say, while the defense evidence hints at innocence and contradicts what the prosecution states . Regardless of the scientific evidence, the following facts continue to stand out: stomach contents match what she ate with Larry at McD’s and Montgomery college (and we all know that those stomach contents would have digested had she not been killed within the day), her hair (forcibly pulled from her head) was found in his truck, her hair was found on the bed and floor, the pantyhose, her CLASS SCHEDULE AND INSURANCE (hmmm, where was she last seen?) was found in pieces in front of his parent’s house weeks after she disappeared, his wife found their house in disarray and he filed a false police report (that day) claiming to have been robbed, TWO of his friends and their mother knew of his plans to meet Melissa and also knew he was upset that she stood him up on a previous occasion. Just a few of the many facts that have convinced me. Get them straight before crying for Larry or praying for him. Come on. Pray for Melissa’s family…For the more than a decade of pain and horror Larry and his defense team continue to put them through. Disgusting.

    His previous attacks are just the icing on the cake. CARE FOR MELISSA AND WHAT SHE WENT THROUGH, NOT THE EVIL MAN WHO RAPED, BEAT, AND MURDERED HER.

  8. Amanda Says:

    I’m with Jessica. A friend dated him briefly and he ended up stalking her at work after she broke up with him. During the short time they were dating, he drove us to his “old high school stomping grounds” as he put it. It was a baseball toss from where Melissa’s body was found. To say police had searched the area and had not found her is ridiculous. You are talking about 39,000 acres. I think the meal and her clothing speak volumes everything else is theory. He offered to pick up her 12 yr old daughter from school one day when she was ill. My friend refused but he was insistent. She still refused. I shudder to think…

  9. Albert Says:

    I was in fire dept.in Hempstead with Larry.One night while on the ambulance me and another guy that knew him were watching the news.When they said he was arrested for the murder we both looked at each other and at same time said he did it

  10. BLove Says:

    I’m watching the rerun with Paula Zahn right now and there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that he is NOT guilty. Every sign points to GUILT. I just hope he stays locked up so he can never do this to another family member again….who cares about the death penalty? He’ll be judged in the end.

  11. Chris Says:

    What about the other guy that Melissa Trotter was deathly afraid of? While the evidence against Swearigen is compelling, the fact that several experts based on different types of forensic evidence said she could not have died on the day she went missing seems to exclude him. I don’t know what the explanation would be for the last meal and clothes, but it’s entirely possible she was held kidnapped, held for a couple of weeks, ate something similar and did have on the same clothes.

    I also find it too incredible that the trailer was searched twice and yet the panty hose were not found during those searches.

    You don’t have to be anti-death penalty to be worried that an innocent person could be put to death. To say that means the death penalty proponents don’t care if mistakes are made by our justice system. I guess they think killing a few innocent people is the cost we pay?

  12. Chris Says:

    Three witnesses saw (Swearingen) sitting with Melissa in the Montgomery College library between 11:30am and 1:30pm on December 8, 1998.

    As previously discussed in summary of facts, Swearingen was not, and could not have been the male that witnesses claimed to have seen with Trotter between 11:30am and 1:30pm on December 8, 1998. It appears while each witness identified Swearingen at trial, subsequent testimony shows they saw two different and separate males that were not Swearingen.

    Q. Can you describe what he was wearing?
    A. He had a cowboy hat, looked like blue jeans, boots, and I remember a, like, a blue-jean coat.

    Id., 25 R.27-28. This witness viewed the male he saw with Trotter from the side for approximately 5 seconds. Id. However, as counsel showed on cross-examination, the male seen with Trotter had blond hair with a large build., Id. At 33-34. Swearingen, however, has black hairs, not blond.

    The State’s next witness, claimed to have been about 15 feet from the male and Trotter. Like the first witness, this witness viewed the male from his side and described him to the court as follows:

    Q. What was the person wearing, if you can recall?
    A. He had a baseball cap on, some western wear, kinda tall, heavy set.

    Id., at 184. This witness however, did not initially identify anyone in the courtroom. Instead, with coaching from the District Attorney, he identified the male most likely the one he claimed to have seen Trotter with. Id., at 186; 199-200. Even though each witness eventually identified Swearingen, their testimony is suspect. Trotter’s biology teacher testified that Trotter was in her class study session scheduled from 11:30am to 1:30pm on the 8th of December, 1998. The following testimony was given to the court:

    Q. Directing your attention back to December the 8th of 1998, were you having class that day?
    A. We were having a review session for the final that was going to be on the 10th.
    Q. When was that review session scheduled for?
    A. 11:30 to 1:30.
    Q. Was Melissa present at the review session?
    A. Yes, she was present.

    Id., at 26 R.4-5. It appears law enforcement’s photo lineup was sufficiently suggestive by having Swearingen stand with blond males, of a smaller build, and Swearingen wearing jail clothing, to create a misidentification (25 R.32-34; 206).

    • (Swearingen’s) wife observed Melissa’s cigarettes and lighter in (Swearingen’s) home that evening, and those items were subsequently recovered from (Swearingen’s) home during the investigation.

    Trial testimony and police records demonstrated Swearingen’s wife had been concealing her smoking habits. The following was presented:

    Q. Now, I believe the State asked you if you were a smoker. Have you ever smoked?
    A. No.
    Q. Never in your life?
    A. No, sir.
    Q. Never bummed cigarettes from your relatives?
    A. Yes.
    Q. What kind of cigarettes were they?
    A. Marlboro.

    Id., at 29 R.178-79. Mrs. Swearingen did in fact, smoke and concealed this habit from her husband, Larry Swearingen, with the help of relatives. Not only did Mrs. Swearingen smoke, but DNA testing on the Marlboro cigarettes found at Swearingen’s home excluded Trotter. (30 R.136).

    Additionally, evidence collected by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office showed numerous Marlboro cigarettes and butts were collected from the yard and trash of Swearingen’s home. DPS criminalist testified, after comparing the plastic wrapper from Marlboro cigarettes found in Trotter’s vehicle to the package found in Swearingen’s home, that there was no physical match between the two items. (30 R.67-68).

    (there’s more – everyone should look at the actual case evidence before beating their drum about this one)

  13. circle Says:

    watched the rerun and read up on it too – previous criminal behavior speaks volumes, while I am against the death penalty (I feel spending a life time in a tiny room is better punishment) this man’s previous treatment of women is his MO – the ripped out hair in the car and his previous rape alligations and convictions are enough for me! he is where he belongs

  14. Troy Says:

    He’s guilty .. But even if he wasn’t the death penalty is ok he’s a hillbilly

  15. Joe Says:

    See, here is the big question I want answered. In the letter he faked while in jail, he wrote a bunch of facts that were consistent with the details of the crime. Nowhere on his (or any other thug lover) website, this is excluded from mention.

    So how did he know so many details about the crime?

    That’s what did it for me. The guy’s guilty.

  16. brice Says:

    I actualy went to school with her. DIdn’t hang out with the same crowd but wete still somewhat friends none the less. remembering back to when this all took place brings alot of ill feelings & memories to mind. He didn’t sell it to me then & I’m not about to buy it now. I WILL ALWAYS BELIEVE HE IS GUILTY!!!!

  17. Sean Says:

    The skin under her nails was not his and with the other forensic findings pointing to his innocence I say the man should be let out of jail. You can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did this.

  18. Matt Says:

    This is what happens when you play with fire. She knew he was married and was screwing around with him. He beat women and treated them like crap. Eventually your sins will find you out. His wife might have killed her who knows.

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