This story is the first in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
Larry Ray Swearingen was put to death in Texas in August, convicted of the murder of Melissa Aline Trotter in 1999.
The body of Trotter, 19, was found by hunters in a national forest in 1999, 25 days after she had vanished.
An autopsy concluded Trotter had been strangled to death.
A significant amount of circumstantial evidence made Swearingen a likely suspect.
Trotter had last been seen leaving a college library with him the day she vanished. Her car was later found parked in the library lot.
Cell phone records showed Swearingen had made a call from the vicinity of the forest on the day Trotter was seen with him.
There was physical evidence said to connect Swearingen to the crime: Four days after Trotter’s body was discovered his landlord was said to have discovered a leg of pantyhose outside Swearingen’s trailer that appeared to match the ligature with which Trotter had been slain. The discovery came weeks after the crime, in an area twice searched previously by police.
Hairs said to be similar to Trotter’s hair were found in Swearingen’s truck, and fibers that might have come from Swearingen’s jacket, truck, and trailer were found on Trotter’s body, though defense experts discounted the significance of those findings.
He denied the crime, but was indicted within days.
While awaiting trial, Swearingen tried a gambit that failed: He took an English-Spanish dictionary and wrote to his mother, posing as a girl named Robin who said she could identify Trotter’s murderer and knew specific details of her murder. Prosecutors contended that details in that letter showed Swearingen’s knowledge of details of the murder, including the color of the victim’s underwear.
Swearingen’s appellate attorney said that those details had by then been disclosed in reports provided to Swearingen and his attorney.
In addition, a cellmate of Swearingen’s testified that, when asked if he had committed the crime, Swearingen responded, “F—, yeah, I did it.”
But Swearingen insisted that he had done no such thing, protesting his innocence until he was put to death.
At trial, the prosecution theory was that Swearingen strangled Trotter to death with a ligature torn or cut from her pantyhose after she rejected his sexual advances the day they were together in the library – and that he disposed of her body in the forest the same afternoon. Dr. Joye M. Carter, who performed the autopsy, testified that the decomposition was consistent with the body having been in the forest for 25 days.
Swearingen took the stand and insisted he was innocent. He said the day he met Trotter in the library he left her with another man, and he went to visit his grandmother. His grandmother testified that on the day that Trotter vanished, Swearingen had picked her up and driven her to the post office.
DNA testing positively excluded Swearingen as the source of male blood flakes found in scrapings of Trotter’s fingernails — blood flakes, the defense contended, that were left by the killer.
The jury was not persuaded and convicted him of murder, and found circumstances that led to the death sentence being imposed.
After the conviction was upheld on appeal, post-conviction attorneys raised a series of issues that appeared to undermine the prosecution case.
The defense contended that Swearingen was provably innocent — he was locked up at the time Trotter was murdered. The defense motion, filed by Philip H. Hilder and James G. Rytting, included the opinion of five independent forensic experts who agreed Trotter’s body could not have been left in the forest until more than a week after Swearingen’s arrest. That would have made it seemingly impossible for Swearingen to have been the killer.
Dr. Carter, the medical examiner, recanted her claim at Swearingen’s trial that the decomposition of Trotter’s body had been consistent with the prosecution theory that Trotter had been slain the day she and Swearingen were seen in the library together.
Other evidence also cast doubt on the prosecution evidence. Two defense experts concluded that the partial pantyhose belatedly found outside Swearingen’s trailer did not match the pantyhose used to strangle Trotter.
Hilder and Rytting also developed evidence that Trotter had received life-threatening telephone calls that caused her to break down in tears. Her co-workers—she had a telemarketing job in addition to college—reported the threats to police, who determined that the threats could not have come from Swearingen. That information was not disclosed to Swearingen’s trial counsel.
But the appellate judges were unmoved and cited a “mountain of inculpatory evidence.”
In August, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed any further consideration.
The next day, Swearingen was executed by lethal injection.