CONROE — Sandy and Charles Trotter already suspected the worst.
For 25 days, dozens of police officers, friends and family in slickers and rubber boots had tromped through the damp Piney Woods around Lake Conroe searching for any sign of their 19 year-old daughter, Melissa. Hundreds of fliers were strewn across the suburbs north of Houston. On Christmas Day, Sandy Trotter had appeared on the local news pleading for anyone with information about their daughter to come forward. Nothing.
Then, on Jan. 2, 1999, hunters in the Sam Houston National Forest happened on a nightmarish scene: a petite woman’s corpse splayed on a mat of leaves, twigs and pine needles, her face badly decomposed, her chest exposed, a green sweater shoved up to her neck, a stark white sock on a foot that had worn the tennis shoe lying next to the body. Her fingernails were still decorated in green and red polish for the holidays. The leg of a pair of pantyhose was knotted around her throat.
For the Trotters, the news was devastating. “Her theme when she was a leader of the Rainbow Girls was the Serenity Prayer and ‘love thy neighbor,’” Sandy Trotter said. “So that was kind of a tough deal.”
Larry Swearingen, an inmate at the Montgomery County Jail and the prime suspect in Melissa Trotter’s disappearance, did not take the news well either. “She was my friend,” he said.
Trotter had disappeared from Montgomery Community College on Dec. 8, 1998. Swearingen was among the last people to see her alive. Police arrested him on unrelated outstanding warrants three days after she went missing and immediately fingered him as the culprit. Evidence on her body and a pile of circumstantial evidence implicated Swearingen. A jury convicted him of kidnapping, raping and killing the teenager and sentenced him to death in 2000.
Since his conviction, though, at least 10 different reports from more than a half-dozen scientists have concluded that Trotter’s body tells a different story. Their examinations of her internal organs show that she was killed while Swearingen was behind bars. The inmate’s lawyers have pleaded with courts for years to review the science. So far, those efforts have failed. But after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week issued a third stay of execution, Swearingen, a former electrician and father of five, and his lawyers are hopeful they will get to present their evidence in court and exonerate him.
“I don’t want to die, not in here,” Swearingen, 40, said during a recent interview on death row. “I don’t want to be a pin cushion for the state.”
Swearingen, who has a criminal history, does not deny that he knew Trotter or that he saw her on Dec. 8. But almost immediately after his arrest, he started behaving as if he had something to hide. He asked a friend to lie and say she had been with him that day. And Swearingen wrote a barely intelligible anonymous letter in Spanish, a language he did not know, with details about the crime scene, trying to redirect investigators’ attention to someone who was Hispanic. “Only the guilty lie and connive to do things like that,” Charles Trotter said.
The state found much more circumstantial evidence that implicated Swearingen. His parents’ neighbors found shreds of paper in the street that turned out to be Melissa Trotter’s class schedule and insurance documents. Swearingen’s landlord said he had found half a pair of pantyhose at his trailer that matched the half tied around Trotter’s neck.
Police found two of her hairs, which had been yanked from her head, inside Swearingen’s truck. State experts testified in court that fibers on Trotter’s body and clothes matched those from Swearingen’s jacket, truck and bedroom. The police also found cigarette butts at Swearingen’s trailer that matched the brand Trotter smoked.
Dr. Joye Carter, the Harris County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, told jurors at the trial in 2000 that Trotter’s body showed enough decomposition that it could have been in the forest for 25 days.
At trial, Montgomery County prosecutors told jurors that Swearingen had been angry with Trotter because she had stood him up for a lunch date. They said he kidnapped her, took her back to his trailer, raped her, strangled her and dumped her body in the woods. “I think the evidence was his undoing,” said Mike Tiffin, the assistant district attorney who led the prosecution.
Swearingen, who has maintained his innocence from the start, insisted that Trotter was alive when they parted on the community college campus.
“The district attorney took evidence of a friendship and turned it into a murder,” he said.
The timing of Trotter’s death was not a major issue during his trial in 2000. Swearingen’s lawyers focused on avoiding the death penalty by disproving the state’s theories that he had also raped and kidnapped her. When appellate lawyers took over the case, they began to question the condition of Trotter’s body. Crime scene video showed a corpse that was fairly well preserved with the exception of the head and neck, where decomposition and insect activity were evident. Her clothes were remarkably clean. And although it was late fall, few leaves had dropped onto her body.
Initially, defense lawyers focused on the development of insect larvae on the body. One scientist who evaluated the bugs estimated that the body had been placed in the woods in mid-December, about a week after Swearingen was put behind bars. Theories about the insects, though, were discarded when it was discovered that specimens were gathered and stored incorrectly.
But scientists who had examined the entomological evidence noticed something else troubling about the autopsy report: Trotter’s organs were heavy and intact. Human bodies decay quickly after death; organs liquefy and disintegrate within days. In a January 2007 affidavit, Dr. James Arends, an entomologist, wrote that the autopsy report indicated Trotter died after Dec. 11 — the day Swearingen was jailed.
Defense lawyers asked at least seven doctors, including Carter, the medical examiner who conducted the initial autopsy, to examine the videos, photographs, organ tissue and microscopic evidence from Trotter’s body. Each one determined that she died while Swearingen was behind bars.
“Everything adds up to an individual who certainly has not been dead” for more than three weeks, said Dr. Lloyd White, the Tarrant County deputy medical examiner. “That’s just not possible.”
Swearingen’s lawyer, James Rytting, said the state’s circumstantial evidence paled when stacked against the mounds of scientific data. “We’re talking about a setup in this case,” Rytting said.
Both Swearingen and Rytting concede that some of Swearingen’s actions after his arrest, particularly the letter in Spanish, were foolish. But Swearingen said the letter was meant only to prod his lawyers, who wanted him to make a plea deal, to investigate whether someone else killed Trotter. And he said crime scene details in the letter — written months after the body was discovered — came from the autopsy report that he had read.
Cigarette butts police found were the same brand Trotter smoked, but DNA on them did not match hers. The torn-up papers that neighbors found on the street showed up nearly a week after Swearingen was arrested — trash trucks had been by twice in that time. And Swearingen said Trotter had been in his truck when the two had gone out on previous occasions, so it made sense for the hair and fibers to match.
The torn pantyhose leg was discovered on Jan. 6, four days after Trotter’s body was found with a pantyhose leg around the neck. On Dec. 15 and Dec. 18, the police had spent hours rummaging through the trailer, looking for evidence, but did not find the pantyhose.
What’s more, lawyers argued in court pleadings, DNA tests on blood found under Trotter’s fingernails belonged to a man — but not to Swearingen.
Prosecutors in Montgomery County do not buy the setup theory, and the courts have rejected repeated pleas from Swearingen’s lawyers to review the scientific evidence.
In a November 2009 court ruling, Melinda Harmon, a judge in the United States District Court, wrote that Swearingen should have discovered and presented the forensic evidence years earlier. But she did not only deny his plea based on procedure; Harmon wrote that the scientists’ reports were not credible because they each reviewed different kinds of evidence. Some looked at microscopic tissue samples, some examined photos and video, and others looked at bugs. “This is not a case where Mr. Swearingen’s evidence is so compelling that a court cannot have confidence in the outcome of his trial,” she wrote.
Yet in a rare move last week, the notoriously pro-prosecution Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Swearingen’s scheduled Aug. 18 execution and ordered a lower court to review his claims of actual innocence.
For Swearingen and his lawyers, the stay was a big victory. “This stay acknowledges powerful scientific evidence of innocence,” Rytting said.
Bill Delmore, the Montgomery County assistant district attorney who is now leading the state’s case against Swearingen, dismisses the litany of expert opinions. He is confident that the state’s case remains strong. “It is very frustrating to have to deal with this constant barrage of differing expert opinions that I often don’t understand,” he said.
The Trotters, meanwhile, remain convinced that Swearingen killed their daughter. And they are ready for it all to end — his appeals and his life. Sandy Trotter said she dreads a court hearing in which scientists and lawyers will trudge through the gory details of her daughter’s death and her decaying, infested body — a body that she watched grow from infancy to womanhood to burial in her mother's wedding dress.