Monday, September 5, 2011

Rick Perry to Execute Another Innocent Man?

     Rick Perry could be at it again.  He's anxiously awaiting the opportunity to add yet another notch to his grisly "execution belt".  There are 234 notches there already, and it includes a number of individuals who had substantial claims of innocence (notably Cameron Todd Willingham, but undoubtedly including others).  The lengths to which Perry goes in attempting to score death penalty points with the red-meat brigades, it's a wonder his campaign bus doesn't tow a death chamber gurney out behind it for maximum effect.
     Larry Swearingen was convicted in 1998 for the horrific kidnapping, rape, and murder of a 19 year old college freshman named Melissa Trotter.
     Three days after Trotter disappeared, police arrested Swearingen on (non-related) outstanding warrants.  When Melissa's body was discovered in the pine woods of Sam Houston National Forest some three weeks later, Swearingen was charged with capital murder.
     Although there was no direct evidence linking Swearingen to the murder, he was convicted on circumstantial evidence (including the fact that he was one of the last people to have seen Melissa prior to her disappearance) and sentenced to death.  (To read an excellent and detailed account of the case, see Jordan Smith's piece here )
     Medical evidence does not support the state's case, however, and actually points to a different killer.  Dr. Llyod White, a deputy medical examiner in Ft. Worth was the first to call the biological evidence into question.  In addition to the fact that the male DNA found in Trotter's fingernails does not match Swearingen's, there is tissue evidence supported by more than a half dozen Texas forensic scientists that is completely inconsistent with the state's theory of Trotter's death.
     In late 2007, Dr. Joyce Carter who was the chief ME in Houston, and who had performed the autopsy, recanted her trial testimony (which claimed Trotter had likely been dead for 25 days).  In fact, a 2009 analysis of the preserved histological evidence (never made available to the defense) revealed Trotter had likely been dead for only two or three days before being left in the woods--in other words, weeks after Swearingen was behind bars.  Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, the ME for Galveston County stated "the way biological tissue reacts during decomposition, there's no doubt about it.  Period.  End of story."
     The cellular structures of Trotter's lungs, heart, and vasculature were clearly intact--these are basic structures that break down quickly after death and certainly would not have remained intact in a body exposed to the elements for a month.
     Texas courts and prosecutors have a spotty record when it comes to accepting scientific evidence.  The doctors in the Swearingen case are adament that the science in question is undeniable.  They argue it's simply not possible that Trotter was killed and her body abandoned at that location by Swearingen.  Dr. White states this conclusion "is affirmed beyond all reasonable doubt."
     One can only hope, and pray, that this matter will be resolved swiftly and fairly in Swearingen's favor, and that the case doesn't wind up anywhere near The Lord High Executioner.  We know with certainty what Governor Perry would do...

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