Posted: January 17, 2013 5:25 PM
The Innocence Project will file a motion today on behalf of Texas death row inmate Larry Swearingen seeking DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could support his longstanding claims of innocence. Swearingen, who is scheduled to be executed in six weeks on February 27, has been requesting the testing of the ligature used to strangle the victim, her fingernail scrapings, clothing and other evidence for years. As the motion notes, the current DNA testing statute was expanded by the Texas legislature in direct response to Swearingen’s unsuccessful requests for testing.
Swearingen was convicted in 2000 of the 1998 murder of a 19-year-old college student Melissa Trotter. Prior to today’s filing, Swearingen filed three unsuccessful motions for DNA testing, most recently being denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2010 due to a restrictive interpretation of the DNA access statute. It was that interpretation that prompted the Texas Legislature to amend the law in 2011 specifically to address the reasons why Swearingen’s earlier requests for DNA testing were denied. Chapter 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure now provides the broad right to conduct DNA testing on essentially all crime scene evidence that can yield probative evidence of innocence.
Three days after Trotter was reported missing, Swearingen was taken into custody for traffic warrants and has remained incarcerated ever since. Trotter’s body was discovered nearly a month later in Sam Houston National Forest, with a piece of a pantyhose leg used to strangle her tied around her neck.
The evidence that Swearingen is seeking to test includes that ligature as well as fingernail scrapings from the victim, items of the victim’s clothing that were bunched and torn by the perpetrator of the crime, cigarette butts found near the body and torn pantyhose found in the trash outside Swearingen’s home.
Phone records show that it would have been nearly impossible for Swearingen to have committed the crime as prosecutors claimed and five forensic experts have raised questions about Swearingen’s guilt given his incarceration and the decomposition of the body. The medical examiner who testified at trial that Trotter’s body could have been left in the forest by Mr. Swearingen on the date of her disappearance has since changed her opinion twice, indicating in one affidavit that Ms. Trotter may have been alive as early as two weeks before her body was discovered.
February 27th is the fourth execution date to be scheduled for Swearingen since 2007. He has been spared from lethal injection three times after receiving court-imposed stays based on strong evidence pointing to Mr. Swearingen’s innocence. Eighteen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. They were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 229 years in prison – including 202 years on death row – for crimes they didn’t commit.
Swearingen is represented by Phil Hilder and James Rytting of Hilder & Associates. The Innocence Project is working with Swearingen’s attorneys in his efforts to secure DNA testing.
Read a copy of the motion and the exhibits and index.
Read more in today’s press release.
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