HOUSTON (AP) — One day after he was spared execution over questions about the timing of his victim's death, prosecutors on Tuesday released new forensic evidence showing Larry Swearingen could, indeed, have committed the killing.
Swearingen and his defense attorneys have argued that he was in jail on other charges when Melissa Trotter was believed to have been slain. But Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said new forensic evidence showed Trotter was killed before Swearingen was in jail.
Liggon said the conclusion from Neal Haskell, an Indiana-based forensic entomologist, "should end the irrelevant debate between defense experts" about the degree of decomposition of Trotter's body.
Swearingen, 37, won a reprieve Monday from a federal appeals court, a day before he was set to receive lethal injection, after Swearingen's attorneys cited forensic science in their questions about the timing of Trotter's death. Swearingen and his lawyers insist he was in jail on traffic warrants and point to forensic evidence they contend show he couldn't be responsible for Trotter's abduction, rape and strangling .
"I hope but do not expect, that Dr. Haskell's report will put this non-issue to rest," Ligon said Tuesday.
Trotter's body was found Jan. 2, 1999, in the Sam Houston National Forest south of Huntsville. The discovery came 25 days after she was last seen leaving the library at Montgomery College near Conroe.
Prosecutors had opposed efforts by Swearingen's lawyers to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which stopped the scheduled Tuesday execution.
In their filings, Swearingen's attorneys contended deterioration of Trotter's body would have been much more severe than it was when found, raising the possibility somebody else dumped it in the woods.
A medical examiner testified at Swearingen's trial in 2000 that she believed Trotter was killed the same day she disappeared. But seven years later, the coroner submitted an affidavit changing her opinion, basing her judgment on temperature data compiled by Swearingen's defense. The new opinion, also supported by other forensic experts, said Trotter's body was in the woods for considerably less than 25 days.
"These issues are now being raised as a diversionary tactic, to distract the courts and the public from the overwhelming evidence of Mr. Swearingen's identity as the person who killed Melissa Trotter," Ligon said.
Ligon, who was elected in November as the district attorney in the county just north of Houston, said evidence examined by Haskell, a professor of forensic science and biology at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind., showed the presence of specific insects that would be consistent with the victim's body being left in the woods no later than Dec, 10, the day before Swearingen was arrested.
He said another forensic anthropologist, Murray Marks, from the University of Tennessee, disputed findings about the decomposition of body organs, which defense pathologists have said supports their opinions that she was killed after Swearingen was jailed. According to Marks, analysis of insects present on the body would be more accurate than analysis of the body or organs within the body, Ligon said.
Ligon also said his office would continue to oppose Swearingen's efforts to get a new trial or any form of clemency.
The 5th Circuit sent the case to a lower court for additional review.
Swearingen, arrested three days after Trotter was last seen, said at his trial that he met Trotter at the college campus the day of her disappearance but they both left separately. Witnesses said she left the library with him. The two had met two days earlier at a Lake Conroe marina.
Evidence showed Trotter was in Swearingen's trailer in Willis and in his pickup truck, where detectives found hair that had been forcibly pulled from her head. Another section of the pantyhose used to strangle Trotter was found in the trash outside Swearingen's trailer.
Cigarettes found in his home matched the brand the victim smoked. Swearingen said his now ex-wife smoked the same brand.
Cell phone records from the day Trotter vanished showed he was in the area where her body eventually was discovered.
Swearingen had a history of at least two accusations of rape plus an allegation of assault on an ex-wife, but charges never were brought against him. He had a previous conviction for burglary when he was 18, for which he spent three days in jail and three years on probation.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.