GIST: "When hunters walking in the piney woods of Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas found the body of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter on January 2, 1999, her jeans were torn and her shirt was pulled up. There was tissue damage on her face from scavenging animals and a length of pantyhose, which had been used to strangle her, was tied around her neck. Trotter had been missing since December 8, 1998, when she disappeared from the Montgomery County community college where she was a first-year student. Three days later, on unrelated warrants, the police arrested Larry Swearingen, a 27-year-old unemployed electrician with a young family and a history of run-ins with the law. Police suspected Swearingen was Trotter’s killer. He had been seen talking with Trotter two days before her disappearance outside a local store near Lake Conroe, which abuts the national forest. On the day she went missing, he was seen chatting with her in the college library. After the body was found some three weeks later, Swearingen was charged with Trotter’s kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder. There was little in the way of hard evidence to back up the charges. In addition to the two times he was seen talking to Trotter prior to her disappearance, the state pointed to a lie he told, claiming he didn’t know who Trotter was, and to a letter he wrote while jailed in which he pretended to be someone else and claimed knowledge about the murder that officials said only the killer would know. In 2000, Swearingen was tried for the crime and sentenced to death. Nearly 20 years after the murder, he maintains his innocence, and for more than a decade he has been fighting to clear his name, in part by repeatedly requesting that key crime scene evidence be subjected to DNA testing. While the state’s case against him was built on circumstantial evidence, there was also a trove of physical evidence that prosecutors seemingly either ignored or dismissed. Trotter’s clothes were never tested for DNA, nor were the swabs contained in the rape kit collected from her body. There were cigarette butts found at the scene that could have been swabbed for saliva. Even the length of pantyhose — the murder weapon — was never subjected to DNA testing. The state insisted that the length of hose matched a second piece of hosiery retrieved from the trailer home Swearingen shared with his wife, Terry. But the hose from the trailer wasn’t found until weeks after Trotter’s body was discovered, after police had conducted two exhaustive searches of the Swearingen property. And instead of submitting either piece for DNA testing, the state had a forensic analyst line them up side by side to determine visually whether they came from the same pair of hosiery — the kind of subjective forensic pattern analysis that raises serious concerns about scientific validity and reliability. At Swearingen’s trial, the analyst testified that the two lengths of hose matched “to the exclusion of all other pantyhose.” According to court filings, evidence that was tested pointed away from Swearingen. DNA collected from a cigarette butt found in Swearingen’s trailer that prosecutors claimed belonged to Trotter excluded her as the donor. And DNA developed from blood found in fingernail scrapings taken from Trotter’s body at autopsy excluded Swearingen, revealing instead the profile of an unknown male. To explain that away, the state offered several theories — one of the cops present at the autopsy might have cut himself shaving that morning and the blood somehow wound up under Trotter’s nails; or maybe the blood of an investigator was blown under her nails by the whirring blades of a helicopter searching the forest for her body. To date, Texas’s highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, has sided with the state, concluding that the “mountain” of circumstantial evidence against Swearingen outweighs the potentially probative value of DNA evidence. The court has denied his request for testing four times — highlighting a confounding, if not obstructionist, approach to requests made for post-conviction DNA testing under state law."

Jordan Smith is one the finest reporters on the Texas criminal justice system that I have ever encountered. Read her  entire story at the link below: