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Criminal Appeals Court Grants Rare Execution Stay

In a rare move Thursday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, stayed the scheduled Aug. 18 execution of Larry Swearingen, convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter.

Death row inmate Larry Swearingen during an interview on July 27, 2011, at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.

CONROE — In a rare move today, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, stayed the scheduled August 18 execution of Larry Swearingen.

He was convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. The Montgomery Community College student’s body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest on Jan. 2, 1999, nearly a month after she disappeared from campus. Witnesses said they saw Trotter leaving the campus with Swearingen on Dec. 8, 1998 — the last time she was seen alive.

Swearingen’s lawyers have filed repeated pleas in state and federal court urging jurists to consider their arguments that forensic science proves that the 40-year-old inmate could not have committed the crime, because he was in jail when Trotter was murdered.

Swearingen was arrested on Dec. 11, 1998 — three days after Trotter disappeared — on unrelated traffic warrants. He has been incarcerated ever since.

Swearingen admits he met Trotter the day she disappeared, and he said the two were friends and had sexual encounters. But he is adamant he did not rape and murder her.

“The district attorney took evidence of a friendship and turned it into a murder,” Swearingen said in an interview with the Tribune at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston a day before the stay was issued.

Entomologists, pathologists and an anthropologist who examined the evidence from Trotter’s body have said that she could not have been in the forest for longer than two weeks. Her body, the experts report, showed only enough decomposition to have been in the woods for a few days, and at most, two weeks. That means her murder would have happened after Swearingen was jailed.

In 2007, Dr. Joye Carter, the Harris County medical examiner who testified at Swearingen’s trial that Trotter had been in the forest for 25 days, reviewed new evidence and submitted an affidavit in which she concluded the murder happened within two weeks of the day Trotter's body was discovered.

James Rytting, Swearingen’s lawyer, said he hopes the stay will give defense lawyers the opportunity to have a full court hearing on the forensic science.

"This stay acknowledges powerful scientific evidence of innocence," Rytting said. "It is time for the forensic scientists, whose painstaking work exonerates Mr. Swearingen, to be heard in open court."

But prosecutors in Montgomery County are confident in Swearingen’s conviction.

“The circumstantial evidence is about the strongest I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Delmore, Montgomery County assistant district attorney.

Swearingen had a criminal record and a history with the local police and was quickly identified as the main suspect in the case.

Among the key pieces of evidence in the prosecution’s case was a pair of pantyhose. One leg of the lingerie was found around Trotter’s neck. Police said the other was found in Swearingen’s home. They also reported finding cigarettes matching the brand Trotter smoked at Swearingen’s house. Investigators also found Trotter’s hair in Swearingen’s truck. And pieces of school papers belonging to Trotter were found near Swearingen's parents' home.

A jury sentenced him to death in July 2000.

Sandy and Charles Trotter said they are certain that Swearingen killed their daughter. Sandy Trotter said they were “extremely” disappointed that his execution was stayed a third time.

She said she was frustrated with the judicial system and distraught at the prospect of new court hearings that focus on the disturbing details of the decomposition of her daughter’s body.

For them, Sandy Trotter said, Swearingen’s execution would bring closure to a tragic chapter in their family’s life and allow them to focus on a happier future.

“None of them have the balls to stand up and say, ‘This is it, you’re outta here, Swearingen,'” she said.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect that Swearingen admitted he met Trotter the day she disappeared. He has not said they ate lunch together that day.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Death penalty State agencies Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals Texas death row Texas Department Of Criminal Justice