© 1998-2015 The Justice Institute -- (Justice Denied is a trade name of The Justice Institute)

© 1998-2016 The Justice Institute -- (Justice Denied is a trade name of The Justice Institute)

Larry Swearingen Scheduled For Execution Based On “Seat Of The Pants” Evidence

Justice:Denied Editorial

In the earliest days of flight pilots flew by seat of the pants reckoning and observation. But as planes became faster, larger and more reliable, instruments were developed that pilots relied on to ensure they arrived safely at their destination, even when flying in bad weather and at night.

The scientific advances contributing to airplane safety are somewhat analogous to the development of scientific tests able to analyze crime related evidence to accurately identify or exclude a suspect. DNA testing is only one of those techniques, but it has gotten the most press because it has contributed to the exoneration of at least 256 people world-wide. (Source: Innocents Database, http://forejustice.org/search_idb.htm) Twenty of those people were released after being sentenced to death.

Other people have been exonerated on the basis of some other forensic test – such as fingerprinting – that excluded him or her as the crime’s perpetrator. Many of the people exonerated by science were convicted by the airplane equivalent of “seat of the pants” flying – circumstantial evidence possibly buttressed by unreliable eyewitness or expert testimony.

On January 2, 1999 the clothed body of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter was found by hunters in the Sam Houston National Forest north of Conroe, Texas where she was a college student. Ms. Trotter disappeared after being seen on the Montgomery College campus on the afternoon of December 8.

Larry Swearingen was acquainted with Ms. Trotter, and in 2000 he was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering her. His convictions were based on circumstantial evidence supported by Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joyce Carter’s testimony that her body was placed in the forest 25 days prior to its discovery. That estimate matched the day of Ms. Trotter’s December 8, 1998 disappearance – a day on which Swearingen was seen with her on the college campus, but he wasn’t seen leaving with her. The jury disregarded DNA tests that excluded Swearingen as the source of blood under Ms. Trotter’s fingernails and of a pubic hair recovered from a vaginal swab.

In an affidavit dated October 31, 2007, Carter effectively recanted her trial testimony. Carter explains in the affidavit that the condition of Ms. Trotter’s body, internal organs and the weather in the weeks prior to the discovery of her body supports a forensic opinion that Ms. Trotter’s body was left in the woods within two weeks of the date of discovery on January 2, 1999.” The earliest date Ms. Trotter could have been left in the forest based on Carter’s analysis is December 19.

In addition to Carter five other experts – two forensic entomologists and three forensic pathologists – have independently provided affidavits attesting to when Ms. Trotter’s body was placed in the forest. Their determinations of the earliest it could have occurred range from December 18 to December 23. Two of the pathologists opine that the condition of her pancreas and other internal organs suggests she wasn’t left in the forest until after December 28. It is significant that entomologist James J. Arends explains in his affidavit that the blow fly species found in Ms. Trotter’s body is “primarily a northern species” and “not a species commonly found in the State.” He also states “the entomological evidence points to death in a different location with body placement at the site…” This suggests Ms. Trotter’s possible transportation out of state, and explains why she was alive for ten days or more without detection before she was killed. The Montgomery County DA’s Office has not countered the scientific evidence of the six experts.

The unanimous finding by the six experts that it is not scientifically possible for Ms. Trotter’s body to have been placed in the forest prior to December 18 is significant. Mr. Swearingen was jailed for outstanding traffic tickets on the 11th, and he was in custody from then until Ms. Trotter’s body was found.

We now know that the jury relied on the prosecution’s presentation of inferior “seat of the pants” circumstantial evidence and inaccurate expert testimony to convict Swearingen. We also now know that the evidence Ms. Trotter was murdered while Swearingen was jailed explains why the blood and pubic hair DNA tests performed prior to his trial excluded him. There are additional DNA tests that can be conducted, but thus far Swearingen’s lawyers have been unsuccessful in obtaining a court order for the testing. They shouldn’t be necessary for overturning Swearingen’s convictions and releasing him, because they would simply confirm what is already known … he could not have killed her.

We all unhesitatingly rely on science to safely get us to our destination whenever we fly. A commercial airline flight that attempted to depend on “seat of the pants” flying from takeoff to landing would end in disaster. Science excluded Swearingen as Ms. Trotter’s murderer prior to his trial and it was ignored. Additional science has established she was murdered while Swearingen was in the Montgomery County Jail. Ignoring science the first time has resulted in Swearingen spending more than eight years on Texas’ death row – but with his execution only days away as this is written, ignoring science a second time while believing less reliable “seat of the pants” evidence will result in the slaying of a man who science says is actually innocent.

(This editorial was written by Hans Sherrer, Justice:Denied’s publisher.)

Click here to read a summary of the affidavits by the six experts and for links to the affidavits and other information about Larry Swearingen’s case.