Sunday, February 1, 2009


One of the lessons of the Goudge Inquiry was the ease with which innocent persons could be convicted of murder strictly on the basis of the pathological evidence on questions such as the time and cause of death - which all too often was wrong.

Many Canadians reacted in horror to the spectre of innocent parents put through the horror of being charged with murdering their own children because of faulty pathological evidence.

That sense of horror is compounded where there is the possibility that an innocent person is being executed by the state in circumstances where there are strong suggestions that the pathologists got it wrong.

The Larry Swearingen case is very much in point;


Court TV reporter Emanuella Grinberg describer Larry Swearingen's "crime" in a story headed: "His crime: A college student's murder and a telltale note from prison," which accompanied an extensive interview that ran before his scheduled execution date; (January 24, 2009);

"Melissa Trotter, a student at Montgomery College in Texas, was last seen alive on Dec. 8, 1998, as she left campus for a lunch date with electrician Larry Swearingen," the story began;

"One month later, authorities found her decomposed body in Sam Houston National Park, her shirt pulled up and a leg of pantyhose wrapped around her neck," it continued;

"An autopsy determined that the 18-year-old had been strangled and then stabbed in the neck while she was still alive.

Swearingen, already considered a suspect, was charged with capital murder during the course of a kidnapping after Trotter's body was found. In November 1999, a grand jury indicted Swearingen on an additional count of attempted sexual assault.

When Swearingen stood trial in 1999, he faced circumstantial and forensic evidence tying him to the crime.

Witnesses placed the married father of two talking to Trotter at a convenience store on Dec. 6, 1998, two days before she disappeared.

The next day, Swearingen's co-workers recalled him bragging about a lunch date he had with a woman named Melissa.

His co-workers told police that when she didn't show up the next day, he became irate. Swearingen was overheard rescheduling the date for the next day and remarked to his boss that with any luck, he'd "have Melissa for lunch."

Witnesses also placed him on the campus with Trotter the day she was last seen alive. Swearingen admitted to the meeting, but insisted that he left her in the parking lot and never saw her again.

But Montgomery County prosecutors claimed that the two went to McDonald's and brought back lunch to the trailer Swearingen shared with his wife and son.

There, prosecutors contended, Swearingen strangled Trotter after she rebuffed his sexual advances and tried to leave. Before he left her body in the woods, prosecutors said, Swearingen stabbed her in the neck to ensure she was dead.

Investigators found McDonald's containers in Swearingen's garbage, along with a lighter and a pack of Marlboro Lights, which was Trotter's brand.

Swearingen's wife also testified that she came home to find the bed rumpled, but there were no signs that someone had burglarized the home.

Forensic experts also testified that hairs found on the pantyhose wrapped around Trotter's neck were consistent with samples from Swearingen's wife.

They also testified that they found clothing fibers and hair in Swearingen's truck that were consistent with samples from Trotter.

But perhaps the most damaging evidence came from Swearingen's cell.

While awaiting trial, Swearingen sent his mother a letter written in broken Spanish, claiming to be from a person who witnessed Trotter's murder and knew the real killer.

The letter contained details of the case that had never been revealed to the public, including the color of Trotter's underwear and her manner of death.

A fellow inmate also testified that he wrote the letter at Swearingen's request. Police searched Swearingen's cell and found a Spanish-English dictionary, along with a sheet of paper listing translations of words that appeared in the letter.

Even so, Swearingen still took the stand to assert his innocence. Against his lawyer's advice, he testified that he met Trotter at the college library on Dec. 8 and listened to her complain about a man who was sending her suggestive e-mails. After that, he said, he left campus without her.

He also testified that he saw Trotter the day before her disappearance at a convenience store with a mystery man. Swearingen testified that the two came into his home for a few minutes, in an apparent effort to explain the existence of her fibers in his truck and home.

A jury convicted him of murder after less than three hours of deliberations.

To sentence him to death, the jury only needed to find that the crime has been committed during the course of either a kidnapping or an attempted sexual assault. After nearly three more hours of deliberations, they sentenced him to death without indicating which aggravating factor they had relied upon.

After his conviction, Swearingen attempted to gather DNA samples from the officials who presided over Trotter's autopsy to determine the source of a red speck of genetic material that was found under her fingernails. The request was denied.

In an interview with, Swearingen also said that he possessed evidence showing that Trotter died after he was jailed on Dec. 11. He referred to a letter from a forensic entomologist who said that evidence of insect activity on the victim's body revealed a later time of death than the time of death named by the medical examiner.

Swearingen claims the evidence exonerates him because he was already in jail when Trotter was killed and placed in the woods.

To date, he has been unable to present the claims in court. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Jan. 24."