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Possibly Innocent Man Loses Another Appeal

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Larry Swearingen lost another appeal yesterday.

This wasn’t all that surprising. For one, The Court of Criminal Appeals—which turned down his request for more DNA testing before the state executes him—is notoriously hostile to defendants, especially those on death row.

Second, Swearingen has lost many appeals. In fact, he’s nearly been executed twice. His case received quite a bit of attention in January 2009, when a federal court stayed his execution just one day before he was scheduled to die.

And, third, Swearingen isn’t an angel. He has a criminal history, including a conviction for rape, according to news reports.

Still, there’s some compelling evidence that Swearingen may be innocent.

He was sentenced to death for murdering Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old college student, in Conroe in December 1998.

Swearingen’s defense team, which includes the New York-based Innocence Project, has contended that Swearingen couldn’t have killed Trotter because, at the time of the murder, he was sitting in jail for outstanding traffic tickets.

Six forensic experts have now studied the evidence in the case and concluded that Trotter’s body was dumped in the woods a good while after Dec. 11, when Swearingen was put in jail.

Swearingen’s defense team has repeatedly asked courts to allow them to test DNA samples in the case—tests that might prove Swearingen’s innocence or confirm his guilt. So far, they’ve been turned down every time.

For more on this case, read Lisa Falkenberg’s two excellent columns on Swearingen a year ago in the Houston Chronicle. (You can read them here and here.)

Having lost in the state’s highest criminal court, Swearingen can take his case back to federal court. The question is, will any judge give Swearingen the chance to prove his claims of innocence before the next execution date?

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.