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A jury found Swearingen guilty of capital murder in July 2000 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in March 2003. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
At his trial and in his appeals, Swearingen challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for the sexual assault and kidnapping components of the crime. The Texas Court of Criminal appeals considered the evidence that Swearingen murdered Trotter to be sound, but admitted that the evidence of rape or kidnapping was circumstantial and was weak "in isolation." The court reasoned, however, that "the consistency of the evidence and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom [...] provide the girders to strengthen the evidence and support a rational jury's finding the elements beyond a reasonable doubt."
In December 2007, Lisa Roberts, a coworker of Trotter's who had gone to school with Swearingen, swore in an affidavit that the Swearingen and Trotter were dating and that Trotter was not afraid of him. She stated that at the call center where she and Trotter worked, Trotter had received some vulgar, threatening phone calls from a different man. Roberts took one of the calls and heard the man say, "I'll strangle you. I'll choke the life out of you." Roberts stated that she knew Swearingen's voice and he was not the man on the phone.
Swearingen's appellate lawyers also challenged the physical evidence in the case, including the medical examiner's finding that Trotter died 25 days before her body was found, and what the state purported to be a match between the two pieces of pantyhose that was "to the exclusion of all other pantyhose."
In 2016, forensic pathologist Victor Weedn issued a report stating there was "considerable evidence to suggest that Ms. Trotter was not killed on the day of her disappearance, but was held, killed later, and her body dumped in the Sam Houston National Forest, sometime after the arrest and incarceration of Mr. Swearingen."
Swearingen had five previous execution dates, each of which were stayed. The most recent execution date, in November 2017, was stayed because of a clerical error made in the filing of his execution warrant.
The last stay issued for Swearingen happened to coincide with a stay of execution issued for another prisoner with whom prosecutors alleged he was colluding. Anthony Allen Shore, who was known as the "Tourniquet Killer," was convicted of strangling four girls and young women, ages 9 through 21, in Houston between 1986 and 1995. As Shore's scheduled execution date of 18 October 2017 drew near, he confessed to two other murders, then recanted those confessions under questioning by the Texas Rangers. Then, on the day Shore was to be put to death, the Harris County District Attorney's office asked the judge for a stay of execution at the request of Brett Ligon, the Montgomery County district attorney. According to Ligon, a folder was found in Shore's cell containing handwritten documents, court exhibits, and crime scene photographs related to Swearingen and Trotter. Ligon believed that Shore and Swearingen had conspired with each other and that Shore intended to confess to Trotter's killing.
The Texas Rangers interviewed Shore on 19 October. Assistant Harris County District Attorney Tom Berg stated that Shore admitted to the Rangers that he had "nothing to do" with Trotter's murder. He said he and Swearingen became friends in prison and he had at one time contemplated taking the fall for him, but they had since "parted ways." He still, however, maintained that Swearingen was innocent. Shore was executed in January 2018, while Swearingen's stay was still in force.
In the weeks leading up to Swearingen's execution, his attorney, James Rytting, said he was not giving up. "We're going to challenge it all, all over again," he said. "We believe that his conviction rests on a pile of junk science."
Rytting also said that even if his client was ultimately executed, the issues involved in his case would linger. "They may put Larry Swearingen under," Rytting said, "But his case is not going to die."
Kelly Blackburn, trial bureau chief for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, was confident that Swearingen was guilty and that the forensic evidence in his case was solid. When asked about the experts who issued reports that criticized or contradicted the state's case, Blackburn said their opinions were "made in a vacuum."
"So far, any of those opinions that have been scrutinized under oath, in a hearing, on the stand, haven't held up," Blackburn said.
"I don't believe you're going to kill me," Swearingen told a Houston Chronicle reporter in an interview from Death Row days before his execution. Comparing the case against him to a house of cards, he said, "I believe I will pull that one single card and it's gonna come tumbling down."
In a ruling issued five days before Swearingen's execution, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals quoted from a previous court ruling that noted the two decades' worth of "legal machinations" consisting of "'a convoluted tangle of habeas applications, pro se motions, mandamus actions, and amended pleadings' seeking to overturn his conviction and postpone his death sentence." The court's opinion stated that Swearingen's lawyers mischaracterized the findings of affidavits and reports in their filings in their effort to allege that Swearingen's conviction was based on "junk science." The court then went on to recite the "mountain of evidence" against Swearingen and denied his request for a stay.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Swearingen's request for clemency on Monday, three days before his execution. On Thursday at 6:10 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court sealed Swearingen's fate by denying him a stay.
"Lord forgive them; they don't know what they are doing," Swearingen said in his last statement. The lethal injection was then started. Swearingen then went on to narrate the experience. "I can hear it going into my veins ... I can taste it ... burning in the right arm ... don't feel anything in the left." He was pronounced dead at 6:47 p.m.
By David Carson. Posted on 22 August 2019. Three paragraphs beginning with "Swearingen had five previous execution dates..." edited and corrected on 11 December 2019.
Sources: Texas Attorney General's Office, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court documents, click2houston.com, Houston Chronicle, Huntsville Item, Washington Post, larry-swearingen.com.