Courts should order DNA testing for Texas Death Row inmate

Posted Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Because of DNA testing, 18 people in the United States who served time on Death Row have been proved innocent and exonerated.

A Texas man scheduled to die next month in the state's death chamber could become the 19th, if the courts will grant a motion filed Thursday by the Innocence Project.

Larry Ray Swearingen, 41, convicted of strangling to death 19-year-old college student Melissa Trotter in 1998 in Montgomery County, has been requesting post-conviction DNA testing since 2004, but it has been denied, basically on procedural grounds.

Since 2007, Swearingen has received three stays of execution, making Feb. 27 his fourth date with death, one that is likely to be carried out unless a court, under recently enacted state legislation, orders the DNA testing.

In addition to the DNA request that may prove Swearingen's innocence, his lawyers outline other powerful evidence that suggests he is not guilty of the crime, including scientific testimony that would prove -- or highly indicate -- that he was in jail at the time of Trotter's murder.

Trotter disappeared from the Montgomery Community College campus on Dec. 8, 1998. Hunters discovered her body 25 days later (Jan. 2, 1999) in the Sam Houston National Forest, northwest of Conroe. The leg of the pantyhose used to strangle her was still around her neck.

Note that on Dec. 11, 1998, three days after Trotter disappeared and 22 days before her body was found, Swearingen was arrested in Montgomery County on unrelated charges, according to the motion. He became a suspect when witnesses said they saw him having lunch with Trotter the day she went missing, which was true but he said he left her there on campus. Other witnesses, including Trotter's biology teacher, said they saw her leaving with a "light-haired man." Swearingen has black hair.

Several pathologists, among them Tarrant County Deputy Medical Examiner Lloyd White, who "concluded with 'scientific certainty,'" are convinced Trotter was not dead 25 days before her body was found. They said she had been dead no longer than 14 days, with the chief medical examiner of Galveston declaring that the time between her death and recovery "could not have exceeded seven days."

In addition, none of the pre-trial DNA or microscopic testing -- pubic hair, blood samples under the victim's fingernails and head hair -- implicated Swearingen in the crime.

Cellphone records and witnesses place Swearingen far away from the forest where the body was found, suggesting he could not have committed the crime and disposed of the body in the time alleged.

"The National Forest was 25 miles from Mr. Swearingen's house, and 40 miles from Montgomery College campus ... Accordingly, the State alleged that Mr. Swearingen kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered Ms. Trotter, drove 40 miles to the National Forest, dragged Ms. Trotter into the woods, and then drove 25 miles to his home -- all in approximately 1 hour," the motion states. "This was an unlikely if not impossible scenario."

Swearingen's lawyers are requesting testing on specific evidence collected: fingernail scrapings, victim's clothing, the pantyhose leg used as a ligature, the pantyhose leg reportedly found in trash outside Swearingen's trailer house after he was in jail, and cigarette butts.

I've never understood why authorities resist post-conviction DNA testing so vigorously, especially if it can prove a person's guilt or innocence. Don't we want to be as sure as we can be before administering the ultimate punishment?

So far, eight people have execution dates set for this year in Texas. If a test would prove one of them innocent, don't we want to know before he dies?

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.

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Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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