Larry Swearingen, who claimed to his dying breath that he did not commit the murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter in 1998, was executed by injection Wednesday night at the state prison in Huntsville, Tex.
Swearingen, 48, was arrested three days after Trotter disappeared from her community college north of Houston in December 1998, and three weeks before her body was found in January 1999. His lawyers argued for nearly two decades that scientific evidence in the case — DNA under her fingernails that wasn’t Swearingen’s, pantyhose around her neck that may not have matched hose found in Swearingen’s home and findings by experts that she had been dead no longer than two weeks — exonerated him.
But prosecutors from the Montgomery County district attorney’s office argued that the science was on their side and that circumstantial evidence such as Swearingen’s actions with Trotter before her death, his lies to police after her disappearance and his previous violent acts toward women all pointed to him as the sole killer. State and federal court judges refused to overturn the jury’s guilty verdict of capital murder in June 2000, and death sentence the following month.
“I’ve never been more confident of the guilt of Larry Swearingen than I am today,” Kelly Blackburn, the assistant district attorney who has handled Swearingen’s case since 2010, said several hours before the execution. “An innocent man is not being executed tonight. The man who abducted, raped and strangled Melissa Trotter is being executed.”
Swearingen released a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday before his death that said, “Today the state of Texas murdered an innocent man.”
He criticized the Texas justice system for treating him unfairly and said, “I feel certain that my death can be a catalyst to change the insane legal system of Texas which could allow this to happen.”
Swearingen called The Post shortly before 6 p.m. Eastern time to say, “I’m scared, and that’s what it comes down to.”
While waiting for his final appeal, he said, “I need four votes from the Supreme Court to stop this,” meaning the number of justices needed to hear the case. Those votes did not come, and the high court denied his habeas corpus petition without comment shortly before 7 p.m. Eastern time. A state prison spokesman said he was put to death by lethal injection at 7:47 p.m. Eastern time. His final words were, “Lord, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Trotter’s mother, Sandy Trotter, told the Houston Chronicle that she never wavered in her belief that Swearingen killed her daughter. “The overwhelming evidence is not just a coincidence,” she said. “There was a trial; he was found guilty, and they agreed on a sentence.”
The family had endured five previous stays of execution. In addition to state and federal courts, the Texas parole board and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declined to commute his sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to hear a third petition to take the case.
Trotter, a student at Montgomery College, now called Lone Star College, told friends that she and Swearingen were dating, which Swearingen said explained why her hair was found in his truck.
Swearingen was a married 27-year-old electrician at the time. After Trotter left a study session about 1:15 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1998, she met up with Swearingen in the student center. Swearingen claimed he then left the center without Trotter. Other students said they saw Trotter eating alone, or with a man other than Swearingen, who was wearing a bright orange jacket. After 2 p.m. that day, Trotter was not seen alive again.
Montgomery County sheriff’s detectives soon focused on Swearingen. On the afternoon of Dec. 8, his wife came home to find their home and bedroom in disarray. Swearingen then made a false police report that his home had been burglarized and property stolen. He also lied to police about his whereabouts that day and fled in a stolen truck when police moved to arrest him on Dec. 11.
Police searched Swearingen’s trailer twice, where he lived with his wife and children, after Trotter’s disappearance. But when her body was found in the Sam Houston National Forest with a leg of pantyhose wrapped around her neck, on Jan. 2, 1999, a third search uncovered what prosecutors said was the “smoking gun”: another half of pantyhose authorities said was a match.
Swearingen’s lawyers presented new evidence this month that seemed to show that the two parts of pantyhose did not match. They also presented pathology experts who said Trotter had not been dead for more than two weeks, though Swearingen had been in jail for more than three weeks. The blood found under Trotter’s fingernails was from a man, but not from Swearingen, tests showed. A state lab technician said the blood probably came from contamination during the collection or testing process, though the state lab issued a letter earlier this month saying the technician had no grounds for such testimony.
“I would challenge anyone to look at this pantyhose,” said Blackburn, the prosecutor, “and tell me they did not come from the same set of pantyhose.”
He noted that one expert for Swearingen testified recently that they appeared to match, though other defense witnesses said they did not. He said tiny blood flakes found in Trotter’s fingernail scrapings were “more than likely contamination” and that “our state’s experts were vigorously cross-examined” by Swearingen’s original trial lawyers. “The jury heard all of that,” Blackburn said.
“It’s not true,” Swearingen said Wednesday evening. He said the new pantyhose evidence “shows the ‘murder weapon’ is not even a match. So if that’s not the murder weapon, then that’s not the smoking gun. That was the catalyst to their case. The jury was never told that. The appellate courts were never told that.”
Swearingen also said Texas authorities had not placed the DNA found under Trotter’s fingernails in a national database, only in a state database. He said he thought it would eventually link someone else to the crime, but “will I be here in time enough to see it happen, I don’t know.”
The jury did hear, in the sentencing phase of the case, of Swearingen’s previous violent behavior toward women. Blackburn said Swearingen had sexually assaulted his first wife at knifepoint, gagged and sexually assaulted another woman and broken into a neighbor’s home and cut off the legs of a pair of pantyhose. He was convicted of capital murder while committing aggravated sexual assault, although his defense has challenged that Trotter was sexually assaulted.
Swearingen took the stand and told the jury he did not kill Trotter.
One issue not raised at trial was the state of Trotter’s body. Although the medical examiner testified that Trotter probably had been dead for 25 days — the amount of time between when she disappeared and when her body was found — numerous forensic experts have since testified for the defense that Trotter had probably only been dead for about two weeks or less.
Texas prosecutors argued, and the courts agreed, that the science of “post-mortem interval” was inexact and that the differing time estimates were not convincing. Prosecutors noted that Trotter had the same food in her stomach that she was last seen eating at the college student center and was wearing the same clothes.
Swearingen’s lawyer for the past 15 years, James Rytting, said that if Trotter had been dead for 25 days, the food would have disintegrated; that it wasn’t the same food; and that if she had been held captive, she wouldn’t have been “taken to Macy’s to freshen up.”
Rytting added, “The whole thing is nonsense, forensics at its worst.”
In a final ruling on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, rejected Swearingen’s new challenges. “Swearingen has not come close to establishing that ‘no reasonable fact-finder’ would have found him guilty,” wrote Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, a recent appointee of President Trump.
“Many people participated in my demise,” Swearingen said in his statement to The Post. He claimed that police planted the matching pantyhose in his home and that the medical examiner had lied about the length of time Trotter had been dead. But Swearingen said he deserved some blame, too. “Not because I had anything to do with Melissa’s murder,” he said. “She was my friend. But in my youth, I made a lot of stupid mistakes. … I was philandering with Melissa and other women instead of taking care of my wife and kids. I had been violent with both women and men. I put myself in a perfect position to be framed for murder.”
Blackburn said Swearingen and his lawyers, including the Innocence Project, “want you to look at everything in a vacuum. But juries don’t do that, they look at the whole case. And the totality of circumstances and the mountain of evidence that Larry Swearingen kidnapped and murdered Melissa Trotter is overwhelming.”