Tuesday, February 3, 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;


The "Dallas News" editorial ran on January 26, 2009, under the heading: "Court stay in death case;"

"It was a relief to see a stay issued in federal court yesterday in the scheduled execution of a Montgomery County man who might have been behind bars when his alleged murder victim was killed," the editorial began;

"Doubts have lingered over the conviction of Larry Swearingen for months, ever since a medical examiner essentially recanted her pivotal testimony about the probable time of death of the victim, college student Melissa Trotter," it continued;

"Yet state courts have declined to examine the expert's new analysis on its merits, citing a technicality to move the case along. Something's wrong here. A key expert witness says her testimony created the wrong impression, and Texas courts don't come to grips with it?

The case against Swearingen was mostly circumstantial. He had a history of abusive behavior toward women. The 19-year-old victim had broken off a date with him shortly before she disappeared in December 1998. He was the last person seen with her, as she left the Montgomery College library. Fibers and hair on his jacket and in his truck linked him to the victim.

Trotter was strangled with pantyhose that allegedly matched a piece found at his mobile home. Her body was found 25 days after her disappearance. All too coincidentally, Harris County Medical Examiner Joye Carter testified at trial that the body had lain in the woods about 25 days.

That's not what she says now. Based on a closer look at decomposition details in the autopsy report, Dr. Carter filed a sworn statement that the body was exposed outdoors no longer than two weeks. Other forensic experts support that finding as well, based on new analysis of insect activity.

The belated findings pose a major problem to the prosecution's case, because Swearingen was jailed on unrelated warrants three days after the victim's disappearance and would not have been free at the time of her death.

The stay of execution in the case should give the courts time to sort through the new analysis and allow the defense to do new tests on the pantyhose.

The medical examiner all but admits she made a mistake in this case. That admission should have obligated Texas courts to call off the execution. There's no margin for error when it comes to Huntsville's death chamber."

Harold Levy...hlevy15@gmail.com;