The Austin Chronicle examines the role of science in a complicated Texas murder case in which electrician Larry Swearingen faces the death penalty for the murder of college student Melissa Trotter. Swearingen, who has been in custody since Trotter went missing in 1998, maintains his innocence, but he was tried and convicted in 2000. Since 2007, he’s been scheduled for execution three times but has avoided lethal injection thanks to court-imposed stays – including one granted last month by the state’s highest criminal court.
At issue is the forensic science of death and decomposition. More than a decade after Trotter’s death, a growing number of scientists – including pathologists, forensic anthropologists, and entomologists – agree that Swearingen could not have been responsible for Trotter’s death. Histological evidence (analysis of cell tissue) that nearly a half-dozen doctors have reviewed shows conclusively, they say, that Trotter had not been dead for 25 days at the time she was found in January 1999. Samples of cardiac, lung, and vascular tissues harvested from Trotter at autopsy, saved in a paraffin block and recovered from a medical examiner’s office by Swearingen’s attorney in 2009, show tissue that is hardly decomposed at all and is consistent with a person who has been dead less than a week. If Trotter was dead less than a week when her body was discovered, Swearingen was in jail when she died and could not have killed her.