He's Set to Die Tomorrow, Says Science Proves He's Innocent

Larry Swearingen has long maintained his innocence in the death of Melissa Trotter
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2019 1:35 PM CDT
He's Set to Die Tomorrow, Says Science Proves He's Innocent
In this Jan. 7, 2009, file photo, Texas death row inmate Larry Swearingen speaks from the interview cage at the death row facility in Livingston, Texas.   (AP Photo/Mike Graczyk, File)

Larry Swearingen is scheduled to die in Texas on Wednesday. His bid for clemency was unanimously denied Monday by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, though the 48-year-old is waiting to hear on whether the Supreme Court will stay his execution and have him sidestep death for now. It's something he's done before, reports the Houston Chronicle: Over the past 20 years he has been scheduled to die on five occasions. But as this seemingly last date comes up, so, too, does an uproar among some who believe Swearingen is innocent of the abduction, rape, and murder of Melissa Trotter—they plan to rally Tuesday outside the Montgomery County courthouse. What you need to know about the case and Swearingen's claims of innocence:

  • Trotter, 19, was last seen on Dec. 8, 1998, at the student center of what's now the Lone Star College. Swearingen, 27, quickly became a suspect due to what Click2Houston reports was footage of the two talking at a marina two days prior. He was arrested Dec. 11 over outstanding traffic warrants.
  • The story Swearingen told police gradually shifted, reports Texas Public Radio. He first said he didn't know her at all; after her hair was found in his truck, he said they were "dating" and "friends with benefits." Others confirmed the two had dated.

  • Trotter's body was found on Jan. 2, 1999, by hunters in the Sam Houston National Forest. She had been strangled, with the killer using a single pantyhose leg to kill her. Swearingen was found guilty in the summer of 2000 and sentenced to death.
  • Kelly Blackburn with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office is unequivocal in her take: “There is no other perpetrator out there. There's no other bogeyman. There's no other serial killer that killed Melissa Trotter. It's Larry Swearingen. There is a mountain of evidence that connects Larry Swearingen to the death of Melissa Trotter that he was convicted on—besides science."
  • The forensic science is what's at issue, and the Washington Post takes a deep dive into it. As for motive, prosecutors said Swearingen was angered when Trotter was a no-show for a lunch date. But they also shared a "smoking gun" at his trial: a pantyhose leg found in Swearington's home by his landlord after Trotter's remains were found. A lab tech with the Texas Department of Public Safety says it was a "unique physical match ... to the exclusion of all other pantyhose" to the one used to kill Trotter. But two fiber analysis experts subsequently found that wasn't the case; a third said the testimony was overblown.
  • One other main point of contention: The county medical examiner testified that Trotter had likely died 25 days before being found, though her body decomposition was mild. The ME subsequently reduced that to 14 days, a figure seven other experts largely agreed was the upper threshold (two said it was likely as few as three days). Swearingen spent the 22 days before Trotter's body was found in jail.
  • Texas Public Radio has this from Swearingen's attorney of more than 15 years, James Rytting: Those Texas woods are "filled with vultures, with raccoons, with wild pigs. There should not have been much left to that body at all. After 25 days, let alone 105 pounds out of 105 pounds.”
  • Blackburn counters that: "You're looking at what the weather was like at Intercontinental Airport and basing the way the body would decompose on those weather patterns versus what's actually happening 20 miles north of here in the national forest."
  • What Rytting had to say after the clemency bid was denied, per the Chronicle: "This was a case where commutation of the sentence was in order. The questions about the evidence were too powerful for an execution to be carried out until they were answered. They may put Larry Swearingen under, but his case is not going to die.”
(More death sentence stories.)

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