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Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Larry Swearingen Murder Case: Was an Innocent Man Executed?

     Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old college student from Willis, Texas, a suburban community just north of Houston, went missing after being last seen in a pickup truck driven by a 27-year-old electrician named Larry Swearingen. Witnesses saw them together on December 8, 1998 pulling away from Lone Star Community College in Conroe, Texas.

     Detectives trying to find the missing student quickly developed Larry Swearingen as a suspect in her disappearance. Swearingen had a history of crimes against women and was at the time under indictment for having allegedly kidnapped his former fiancee. Investigators considered him a violent sociopath.

     About a week after Melissa Trotter went missing, when detectives questioned Swearingen, he denied knowing her. However, when asked why his pager number was in the missing student's possessions, Swearingen admitted that he knew her and that she had been in his truck many times. At this point the authorities did not have enough evidence to charge Swearingen with any crime related to the missing person case. They did, however, take him into custody in connection with numerous outstanding traffic violations. As it turned out, he would remain behind bars the rest of his life.

     On January 2, 1999, 25 days after she went missing, a person stumbled upon Melissa Trotter's partially clad body in Sam Houston National Forest 70 miles northeast of Houston. The forensic pathologist concluded that she had been killed within a day or two of her disappearance. Her killer had either strangled her to death with a piece of her pantyhose in the national forest or killed her somewhere else before dumping her body in the woods.

     Detectives searched Larry Swearingen's trailer and found a pair of ripped pantyhose that matched the suspected crime scene ligature. Investigators also found a lighter in the suspect's dwelling that was similar to one the victim had owned.

     A crime lab hair and fiber examiner matched fibers on the victim's body with fibers from the inside of Swearingen's truck. In addition, a cell tower had pinged the suspect not far from where the body had been found in the forest. Detectives believed Swearingen had murdered Melissa Trotter after she resisted his sexual advances. They also believed he had raped her before strangling her.

     In mid-January 1999, the Montgomery County District Attorney charged Larry Swearingen with kidnapping, rape and capital murder. The prosecutor also notified the defense that the state would seek the death penalty in the case. The defendant pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     At his murder trial Swearingen's attorneys challenged the validity of the fiber matches related to the pantyhose and challenged the trace evidence taken from the defendant's truck. Five forensic pathologists took the stand for the defense and testified that in their expert opinions, Melissa Trotter's body showed too little decomposition to have been dead 25 days at the time of her discovery. The experts believed that when the corpse was found on January 2, 1998 she had been dead no longer than 14 days. This meant that at the time of her murder, about December 22, 1998, Larry Swearingen had been in jail on the outstanding traffic charges.

     Defense attorneys argued that the circumstantial case against their client was weak and based on junk science. The defense also pointed out that dried blood and tissue samples taken from beneath the victim's fingernails did not come from Larry Swearingen.

     Notwithstanding the aggressive defense, the Montgomery County jury found Larry Swearingen guilty of capital murder. The trial judge sentenced him to death.

     Attorneys with the Innocence Project took up Swearingen's appeal of the murder verdict. On August 21, 2019, following several stay of executions and lost appeals before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, Swearingen was delivered to the death chamber at the state prison in Huntsville, Texas.

     The condemned man's final statement before being injected with pentobarbital was: "Lord, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing." The executioner administered the lethal dose at 7:47 in the evening. "It's actually burning in my right arm," said Swearingen. "I don't feel anything in the left arm." Those were his last words. Twelve minutes later the attending physician pronounced the 48-year-old dead.

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