Saturday, December 29, 2012

Who Killed Melissa Trotter? Ninfa's

Maria Ninfa Rodriquez Laurenzo was much better known as Mama Ninfa. She died in 2001 at 77 years of age. Members of the Houston City Counsel postponed their regularly scheduled meeting so that they could attend her funeral.

Seven years earlier, in 1994, Mama Ninfa was named Business Woman of the Year by the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 1988, the year Preston Hughes was framed for two murders, Mama Ninfa was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. In 1979, the Texas Restaurant Association named her the Woman Restaurateur of the Year.

From Wikipedia:
She was a personal friend of President of the United States George H.W. Bush. In 1984, Bush, then Vice President of the United States appointed her as one of the five goodwill ambassadors to welcome Pope John Paul II in Puerto Rico. ... In 1988, while in New Orleans, Louisiana, she delivered a speech that seconded Bush's nomination for president in the 1988 United States presidential election. She delivered the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening session of the 1992 Republican National Convention on August 17, 1992.
Her awards and recognition stemmed from her restaurant chain. This is her original restaurant.

Ninfa's Original Restaurant at 2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston
She must have made some mighty fine food.

Her little restaurant was so popular that in 1975 she opened a second one, a larger one at 10694 Westheimer Boulevard. From Wikipedia.
Around June 1977 the original Ninfa's on Navigation averaged 400 customers daily for lunch and 700 daily for dinner. During the same time the Ninfa's on Westheimer averaged 600 customers daily for lunch and 1,000 daily for dinner. The averages remained constant for all seven days of the week. In 1978 the restaurant chain had 500 employees, including 60 workers in the kitchens. ... Throughout the restaurant's history, many celebrities, including Aerosmith, George H.W. Bush, George Benson, Dyan Cannon, Michael Douglas, Crystal Gayle, Rock Hudson, Reba McEntire, John Travolta, Ben Vereen, and ZZ Top ate at Ninfa's. Travolta had a private corner at the Westheimer Ninfa's location while he filmed Urban Cowboy, and while flying in his private aircraft he often stopped in Houston to pick up Ninfa's food.
As I said, she must have made some mighty fine food.

Ninfa's eventually expanded to 55 restaurants. The business became too large for her to manage effectively. Quality suffered and many of the restaurants closed. Today only the original on Navigation Boulevard maintains some semblance of the magic Mama Ninfa created back in 1973.

The restaurant on Westheimer is now gone. In its place stands a tire store.

On September 26, 1986, Anthony Allen Shore dumped the body of 15-year-old Laurie Lee Tremblay behind the Ninfa's restaurant that used to be there on Westheimer. The area wasn't all that private. An overhead view looking from the rear of the tire store shows that the area was hidden from passers by on Westheimer, but not much else.

That's a car wash just to the side of the building. Shore mentioned it in his statement.
There was not, I mean people around the parking lot but there was cars coming and going There was a car wash or some shit and there was people standing around outside and I couldn't believe this.
One of the people he saw behind Ninfa as he was dumping the body of Laurie Lee Tremblay was Homer Fernandez. Homer was Mama Ninfa's nephew. He managed the restaurant on Westheimer. He arrived early that day to prepare for the crowds that were sure to follow.

He arrived around 7:20 A.M. He parked in back as he usually did. He turned off the engine and went through some paperwork. He looked out his car window. From Corey Mitchell's book Strangler:
Once Fernandez gathered his information, he looked out his car window. He was surprised to see another car pull up directly behind the restaurant. This was quite unusual, as the restaurant did not officially open until lunch, so there were never any employees on the premises at this time of the morning. Hernandez [sic] looked up to see who it was, but the driver did not get out of the car. Hernandez [sic] turned his attention back to his paperwork. When he glanced up again, he saw a man outside the parked vehicle standing in between the car and the Dumpster at the back of the restaurant. 
The morning glare of the sun prevented Fernandez from getting a close look. 
The restaurant manager looked down to the other driver's feet. He was shocked to see a body there. He believed the other driver was staring back at him; however, he could not be certain. Fernandez had dark tint on all of his windows, so it was difficult to make out the driver's expression. 
Fernandez was frightened, so he looked back down at his papers. He was afraid he would attract the attention of the driver. 
The man by the Dumpster jumped back into his small light-blue vehicle and hightailed it out of the restaurant parking lot. Fernandez could tell the man was white and had dark hair, but that was all he saw. 
Fernandez didn't know what to do and panicked. Once he knew the driver had taken off, he turned his attention back to the Dumpster behind his restaurant. He stepped out of his car and headed over to the trash area. As he walked up to the area, he noticed what could only be described as a human pretzel. 
A young teenage girl's mangled body lay on her back next to the curb by the Dumpster. Her blue jean Capri-clad legs were splayed out to her left, with her right leg crossing over her left leg at the ankles. She wore a pink interlaced woven shoe on her left foot, but no shoe on her right. Her left leg, which lay under her right leg, was bent up at a 115-degree angle, with her knee pointing toward her left shoulder and the left side of her face. Her left arm had snaked under her bent left knee and appeared to be grasping the side of her jeans on her right leg. The girl's upper half was covered with a short-sleeved white half-shirt, with an exposed midriff. Lying in between her stomach and left thigh was her right shoe. Apparently, the man, who had so deliberately disposed of her body, had almost forgotten one of her shoes and tossed it on her as he sped off. The girl's right arm was also extended above her head, with a slight bend at the elbow, which touched the curb. 
Fernandez bent down to take a closer look at the young blood girl. He noticed that she seemed a little puffy, especially around the lips, which were discolored, like sour milk. He also noticed an abrasion underneath her right nostril, as well as a few scratches on the lower portion of the right cheek. Her left eye appeared swollen and purplish. Fernandez also noticed a bright red contusion that seemed to stretch around her neck like a coral snake. ... 
Fernandez bolted up from the body, unlocked the back door, disarmed the restaurant security system, and went into his office. ... When the emergency operator answered his call, Fernandez stated, "I want to report a dead body outside my restaurant." ... 
The three officers dispatched to the scene at Ninfa's were Jim Ramsey, Larry Boyd Smith, and John Swaim.
Seventeen years after investigating the scene behind Ninfa's, John Swaim would take Anthony Allen Shore's confession to the murder of Laurie Lee Tremblay and others. John Swaim quite properly preserved those confessions by recording them. Good on him for that.

Just two years after investigating the scene behind Ninfa's, however, John Swaim would "witness" Preston Hughes' second confession.

Actually, neither John Swaim nor anyone else actually witnessed any portion of either of Preston's two confessions. Sgt. Dennis Gafford took Preston's first confession, but excluded all others from the room while he did so. Sgt. D.A. Ferguson took Preston's second confession, but excluded all others from the room while he did so. Both Gafford and Ferguson declined to use the equipment made available for recording interrogations. Instead, after extracting the confessions (via offers of extreme leniency), Gafford and then Ferguson called in two officers to "witness" the confession. John Swaim was one of the two officers called in to witness the second confession. He did so once he satisfied himself that the confession was voluntary. However, despite signing as a witness, he had no direct knowledge of how that confession was obtained.

John Swam is but an incidental, inconsequential link between Anthony Allen Shore and the murders of Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor. What caught my attention was the proximity of their murders to that of Laurie Lee Tremblay. As it turns out, Shandra and Marcell were murdered only 2 miles from where Laurie was abducted, only 1.2 miles from where her body was dumped, and only 1.6 miles from where Anthony Allen Shore lived.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Working from left to right, the three green pins locate the apartment complex where Laurie lived, the bus stop from which she was abducted, and the Ninfa's restaurant where her body was dumped. The blue pin locates the home (at the time) of Anthony Allen Shore. The red pin locates where Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor were murdered.

Those of you who are already familiar with the nature of Anthony Shore's other attacks will recognize immediately that Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor do not fit his modus operandi, at least not the MO people typically formulate based on his acknowledged murders. I'll discuss that more as the series progresses, but for now I'll simply concede that it might be mere coincidence that a serial killer and his first victim each lived close to the field in which Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor were killed.

If so, then it would also be a mere coincidence Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor were murdered two years to the day after Laurie Lee Tremblay. All three were murdered on September 26.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Who Killed Melissa Trotter? Laurie Lee Trembly

September 26, 1986
Each school day for the previous month, 15-year-old Laurie Lee Tremblay would rise early for school.

She would exit the Whittfield apartment complex parking lot through the main gate, turn right, and begin walking east along Whittington Boulevard.

After a quarter mile, she would turn left on South Dairy Ashford Road.

After another quarter mile, she would arrive at the corner of Dairy Ashford and Westella Drive. There she would wait for the Houston Metro Bus that would take her on the first of two bus rides to her school.

Anthony Allen Shore lived nearby.

October 25, 2003
From the police interrogation of Anthony Allen Shore by Houston PD Sergeant John Swaim. All ellipses are in the original.

Swaim: Let's start with, let's just start with the killing.

Shore: First is Laurie Ann Tremblay.

Laurie's middle name was Lee, not Ann.

Swaim: Okay.

Shore: I was living in Alfred's house at the time. I was working for Southwestern Bell as a marketing representative. Actually, it might have been a service rep at the time. I was in the business office. Every morning, I'd be going to work. Every morning this little girl asked me for a cigarette and I couldn't stop laughing. I asked if she need a ride. Then I gave her a ride. Then a couple of days went by, she saw me, I gave her a ride again, to school. She had a long freakin' ways from where she had to catch the bus. She was only, way up on Whittington in these apartments. She and I became more than just friends and that's not braggin', it's stating fuckin' facts 'cause I understand she was not of age. And I've also been through a lot of sex offender treatment therapy at this time and I'm starting to understand some of the psychopathology behind my preoccupation. I know it is.

By "therapy at this time", Shore is referring to the time of the interview, not the time of the killing. Shore underwent sex offender therapy as part of his plea bargain for molesting his daughters. That plea bargain was in  January of 1998, after his last acknowledged killing.

Shore: She and I had become involved, at least in the sense of two things: I load her bags and I started to give her a ride on a semi-regular basis. Then, one morning, uh, she got to the bus really early, you know, and we got to ride around. There's times I even stopped and we bought kolaches, but we had time to ride around and kick it.

A kolache is pastry with fruit on top surrounded by a puffy ridge.

And, if they got off of work a little early, if got to be a fairly regular thing giving her a ride. Then there was, uh, something happened. I don't recall what with her, a couple of weeks there she didn't want a ride. So, I guess she was, decided this was a fucked-up kind of little relationship that's fucking juvenile but, anyway, she decided not to.

Swaim: Right.

Shore: Then one day it was misting rain, she saw me, asked me for a ride, and I didn't want her to get more involved in this because it needed stopping. It started off okay and then she was freaked out ... and I won't deny it I was a sick puppy 'cause I was --

Swaim: What kind of vehicle did you have back then?

Shore: Cadillac Cimarrron. It was light in color. Had a dent in the panel on the driver's side rear door.

Generic Light-Colored Cadillac Cimarron
Swaim: Okay. I was just curious. I'm sorry, go 'head.

Shore: So, it got out of hand and she started freakin' out and I begged her, I said "Please don't." She's like "no." I freaked out. I don't know what came over me. What kind of sickness. I freaked out. I had a wife, I had two daughters, living in this reasonably decent house that needed a lot of repairs but it was a nice neighborhood and all this stuff. And I had a life and I couldn't see it all thrown away. And I freaked out. And, uh, just wanted it to just stop. Take a cotton cord that time.

Swaim: Okay.

Shore: I remember it was cotton 'cause ... I tried to calm her down. She wouldn't calm down. I remember trying to knock her out and I hit her in the back of the head.

Swaim: Where were y'all at, in your car?

Shore: Yeah, in the neighborhood somewhere between Briar Forest and Westheimer. I'm not sure what streets, cross streets, but if I had to estimate, probably around Wilcrest, maybe, or even further up, maybe ... I dunno. Somewhere in that ballpark.

Swaim: Move on.

Shore: [Loud sigh]

Swaim: And then what happened?

Shore: I undid her bra. Everything got outta hand. She freaked out. I remember we got into ... I tried to know her out because I just really freaked out. It's not right and I just find it hard to talk about. Took this cotton cord and I tried to make sure she would never, ever tell anybody. Even though I knew that was insane and I knew there was probably no chance in hell that I wasn't going to get found out 'cause I was stupid. The number of ride that I had given her, surely somebody seen us together, surely something. And the cotton cord broke more than once. It wasn't working. That's all I know.

Swaim: Did you use your hands?

Shore: I used a cord, a ligature.

Swaim: I know, but did you use your hands on it?

Shore: I used my hands. I injured my fingers.

Swaim: You did that in the car, is that correct?

Shore: I panicked. Daylight come on and I didn't know what to do. And I looked, I mean there was no way to make this go away. I stepped over the line. I knew I was fucked. I needed, this is a, I'm fucked for life and there's nothing I can do about it.

Swaim: Right.

Shore: I was sick to my stomach. I even stopped at one point and threw up because I was sick. I had people passing by. I couldn't believe nobody fucking saw shit. Nobody stopped to find out what was going on, anything.

Swaim: Okay.

Shore: So I drove up behind the Ninfa's there and I pushed her out of the car. I just wanted to get away from the situation.

Swaim: Mmm, hmm.

Shore: And I noticed one of her shoes had come off. I picked it up carefully. I think I used the index finger of my right hand to pick it up knowing full well I put a print on it but honestly, at that point, someone's gonna go look for her ... and I threw the shoe out.

Swaim: By her?

Shore: Her shoe. Threw 'em off. In the car.

Swaim: Oh, in the car.

Shore: In the car and I pushed her out and her shoes were, I took the shoe, lifted it by my index finger so you will find the print, probably, if you look for it.

Swaim: Oh.

Shore: I threw it out of the car. I remember then I tried to go and accidentally ran over some part of her. I don't know what. There was not, I mean people around the parking lot but here was cares coming and going There was a car wash or some shit and there was people standing around outside and I couldn't believe this. I was almost in a dream world. I was fucking shot, freaked out, I couldn't think straight. I remember having to go to class. I don't know what kind of class it was. It was off Westpark.

Swaim: You were talking about her bra was undone?

Shore: Yeah.

Swaim: In the back or in the front?

Shore: From the back.

Swaim: From the back? Okay. Did you take anything from her?

Shore: I still had just her school books and that kind of stuff. I didn't take anything else from her.

Swaim: When you left did you have her property in the car?

Shore: Yes, I did.

Swaim: What was it?

Shore: I don't remember. School books, lunch, something. Just some general stuff. Wadded up paper bag.

Swaim: What happened to that stuff?

Shore: Stuck it in a Dumpster somewhere at an apartment complex somewhere.

Swaim: See, I'm confused. She had a shoe missing, bother her shoes were there? You just threw one out, is that right?

Shore: I threw one out.

Swaim: So she had both her shoes there?

Shore: Both shoes. One was till on her foot and --

Swaim: Oh, and one wasn't. I got you.

Shore: That never hit the papers so there's no way I'd now that --

Swaim: Oh, I know it's true. I know it's true. I was there.

Shore: I was sick. I was scared to death. I was paranoid for days. I just knew this was, this was, God, there's no way I could change or have that. I was sick. I didn't want to lose everything. My wife, my kids, my house, and everything and so I tired to put an end to it the best I could that I was in a state of shock for a long time. For months. I promised myself nothing like this would ever, ever, ever, ever happen. Promised, no fucking way. then I had crazy ... crazy thoughts. I mean I had, I don't know if you call 'em dreams, people talk about voices in their head. I felt like there were voices, almost like my own voice ... and I'd have fantasy trips which has to do with the preoccupation, which I haven't talked about in sex offender treatment class but I'm aware of it. And I had these fantasies and I had this one girl that I picked up and I was tying her and --

Swaim: Okay. On that case, that's about it?

Shore: That's all I can remember.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who Killed Melissa Trotter? Introduction

In my series The Most Innocent Man on Death Row, I make my case that Larry Swearingen could not have killed Melissa Trotter. Swearingen was, to a medical certainty, in jail when Melissa was murdered. Given that Texas now intends to execute him on 27 February for her murder, and given that I believe I may know who actually killed her, I need to reveal what I have recently learned, quickly and comprehensively.

I believe Anthony Allen Shore murdered Melissa Trotter. I believe I can make a compelling argument that he did so, and I can propose a test that might (repeat might) confirm my conclusion. To understand why I believe Anthony Shore is Melissa's killer, you must first understand him. This post is therefore the first in yet another series of unknown length. You'll have to be patient, and I'll need be prompt. Another innocent man's life is at stake.

Anthony Allen Shore is a serial killer now on Texas Death row. I learned of him as I was working on Preston  Hughes' post-mortem. Hughes died in part because the city of Houston failed to act on the recommendations of its own independent investigator. The city of Houston commissioned Michael R. Bromwich to investigate the serious problems at Houston's Police Department crime lab. In 2007, Bromwich and his well-staffed investigative team published their final report: Final Report of the Independent Investigator for the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory and Property Room.

I will hereafter refer to Bromwich and his team as the Bromwich Team or simply as the Team.

In their 400 page report, the Bromwich Team identified more than 200 Texas' convicts having "major issues" associated with the work of the Houston PD crime lab, hereafter referred to simply as the crime lab. The Team listed the names of those prisoners in the appendices to their report. If you check Page 4 of Appendix D, you'll find Preston's name there, third from the top of the page. Now if you check on Page 1 of that same appendix, you find the name of Anthony Allen Shore halfway down the page.

The Bromwich Team made a series of recommendations applicable to all cases they identified has having "major issues." In summary, those recommendations were that each person be notified that the team had identified forensic problems with their case, that each person be assigned a special master to review all aspects of their case, and that DNA testing be conducted whenever possible at no cost to the prisoner.

In response to the recommendations of the its own independent investigator, the City of Houston did nothing. They simply washed their hands of all those cases the lab may have already screwed up, and focused on preventing problems in the future. The city argued that it was not their job to correct any errors, that the responsibility rested with the District Attorneys Office. The District Attorneys Office didn't see it that way, and innocent people languished in prison.

As it turns out, a jury also didn't see it the same way as the City of Houston. If you look on Page 5 of Appendix D, about half way down, you'll see the name of George Rodriguez. It turns out he was one of the 10% or so on the list that were actually innocent. No thanks to the City of Houston, or the Houston PD, or the Harris County DA's Office, George Rodriguez was exonerated by the work of The Innocence Project. He sued the City of Houston because of the corrupt work of its crime lab in general and James Bolding in particular. The jury awarded him $5 million. He settled for $3 million.

Presumably the City Houston now understands that they cannot dodge responsibility for their crime lab. They ignore past cases at their peril.

Another innocent person in the list was Preston Hughes. The City of Houston never notified him that an independent investigator had identified "major problems" with the forensic work in his case. I notified him when I learned of the report.

The City of Houston never assigned him a special master to review his case from beginning to end. I acted as his special master, as best I could.

The City of Houston certainly didn't identify and pay for any DNA testing that might have proven him innocent. I prepared the Chapter 64 motion to have the killer's DNA compared against Preston's DNA.

The City's failure to act was the basis of the 28 U.S.C. federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Houston that I prepared for Preston. Though Houston had just recently settled with George Rodriguez (and thereby admitted its responsibility), and though the City was aware of the egregious circumstances of Preston's conviction (via the law suit and presentations to the city council), the City did nothing. They simply waited for the plaintiff to be executed, hoping that would spare them any further trouble.

I assure the City of Houston that it will not.

In summary, the failure of anyone in authority to seriously consider the merits of Preston's claims of actual innocence constitutes an ineradicable stain on our country's justice system. Furthermore, it pissed me off something fierce. I have therefore decided that in 2013, I will attempt to notify each prisoner on the list that Houston's own independent investigator found major problems with the crime lab work in his case. I will notify each prisoner as well that the city of Houston is obliged to appoint a special master to review the prisoner's case from beginning to end, and to conduct DNA testing as appropriate, all at no cost to the prisoner. I will notify each prisoner that the City of Houston already settled for $3 million with one prisoner who was on the list and exonerated in spite of Houston's failure act on his case.

It was under those circumstances that I learned of Anthony Allen Shore. I decided to first contact those prisoners on the list who were on death row. As I looked into each case, I was shocked to learn that Anthony Shore may have killed Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor.

That's right. Not only do I think it likely that Anthony Shore murdered Melissa Trotter, I think there is a lesser possibility that he killed Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor. I'll explain why in my next post, hopefully to be completed tomorrow. Time is short.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: Introduction

Yesterday, I announced that I would not be posting for an indefinite period of time. Today I learned that Texas has issued a death warrant for Larry Ray Swearingen. He is now scheduled to be executed on 27 February 2013. That piece of information is apparently sufficient to shake me out of my blogging lassitude. I now feel compelled to write of the case for two reasons.

Reason First: I consider Larry Ray Swearingen to be the most innocent man on death row. I understand that under my definition of actual innocence, there can be no gradations: Either the person is 100% innocent or the person does not fit my definition of actual innocence. By describing Swearingen as The Most Innocent Man on Death Row, I'm saying that I know of no other case in which the person to be executed is so clearly innocent. If Texas executes Larry Swearingen, as they are intent to do, then I claim that it will be the most obviously wrongful, and most obviously shameful, execution in the so called "modern" era.

Reason Second: I believe I may have inadvertently identified the actual murderer.

Given those two circumstances, I am compelled to write, and write with urgency. I have written of his case  twice already: once in this blog and a second time for my unpublished book America's Executioner. I consider my second effort the better of the two, so I will use it to form a good portion of this series of unknown length.

I'll also preface the series by noting that Larry Swearingen, unlike Preston Hughes, is well represented. His attorney is the sincere, dedicated, and capable James Rytting of Hilder and Associates in Houston. Because of the professionalism of James Rytting and others, Larry Swearingen has already survived three execution dates. He has done so because his defense team has brought forth distinguished scientists who insist that it is medically impossible for him to have murdered the victim. The scientists have established to a medical certainty that the victim died no more than a week before her body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest. Since Swearingen had by that time been in jail for three weeks, he cannot possibly be guilty of her murder.

I'll first describe his case and the reasons his execution has been stayed already three times. I'll then identify the person I believe may have murdered Melissa Trotter. Whether or not I am correct about the alternate suspect, Larry Ray Swearingen is currently The Most Innocent Man on Death Row.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: The State's Case


The Victim
Melissa Trotter was the nineteen-year-old daughter of Sandy and Charles Trotter, the cousin of Texas State Senator Jerry Patterson, a community college student, and a school bookstore employee. Melissa did not return home as expected on the night of December 8, 1998. Her parents began searching immediately.

Melissa's 1997 emerald green Pontiac Sunfire was found at 2 AM, parked in the Montgomery College lot. Her cell phone and some of her schoolbooks were still in the car. Her Winnie the Pooh backpack was not in the car, nor were the books she had been using to study for her final exams. She missed her afternoon history final. She missed her evening work shift.

The State's Case
According to the State's theory of the case, Melissa Trotter was already dead by the time she was to be at work, and dead at the hands of Larry Ray Swearingen. Her body, however, would not be found until twenty-four days later. On January 2, 1999, several hunters came across her clothed remains in the western portion of Sam Houston National Forest, near the western shore of Lake Conroe. She had been strangled with one leg cut from a pair of pantyhose. The ligature was still knotted around her neck.

By the time Melissa's body was discovered, Larry Swearingen had been in jail for twenty-two days. He was the primary suspect in her disappearance. The police had arrested him for outstanding traffic warrants on December 11, just three days after Melissa went missing.

At his trial, the State presented a circumstantial, but substantial case for murder. With respect to the attempted rape and kidnapping charges, however, the evidence was wispy thin.

On December 6, Swearingen met Melissa Trotter and talked with her at length. She gave him her phone number, and they made plans to talk again the next day.

Later that evening, while using his truck to help transport some furniture, Swearingen commented to Bryan Foster and William Brown that he was going to meet a young lady named Melissa for lunch. He bragged that if everything went right, he was going "to have Melissa for lunch." Swearingen called Melissa from Foster's house and talked with Melissa about meeting her for lunch and helping her study for an exam.

On December 7, Melissa paged Swearingen. He called her back. She apparently canceled or postponed their lunch date. His co-workers teased him about being stood up. He explained she was taking a test. He appeared to be angry the rest of the day.

On December 8, several witnesses saw Melissa sitting with a male, possibly Swearingen, in the Montgomery College library between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. The two of them were sitting by the computers and chatting amicably. Melissa's biology teacher saw her leave with a male shortly after 1:30 PM.

At 2:05, Swearingen returned a page from his friend Sarah Searle. He told her that he would have to call her back because he was having lunch with a friend.

Around 3:00, Swearingen's landlord saw Swearingen's truck arrive. Not long thereafter he saw Swearingen's truck leave. Because the truck had tinted windows, the landlord could not see who was in the truck.

At 3:03, Swearingen placed a cell phone call that utilized a cell tower near FM 1097 in Willis, Texas. The State argued the call was consistent with Swearingen driving from his rented mobile home to the Sam Houston National Forest where Melissa's body was found.

At 4:30, Swearingen placed another cell phone call picked up by a different cell tower near Willis. The State argued the call was consistent with Swearingen returning to his home after dumping Melissa's body in the Sam Houston National Forest.

When Swearingen returned home, he was again observed by his landlord. Swearingen in fact spoke briefly with the landlord.

By 5:30, Swearingen left again, this time to pick up his wife Terry from his mother's house.

Terry Swearingen would later testify that when she and her husband returned home, she noticed their home was in disarray. She noticed also a pack of Marlboro Light cigarettes and a red lighter on top of the television. Neither she nor her husband smoked. Melissa Trotter, however, smoked Marlboro Lights and used a lighter similar to that found in the Swearingen's home.

That same evening, Larry Swearingen called Phyllis Morrison, an ex-girlfriend. Swearingen told her that he was in trouble and that the police might be after him.

On December 9, when the Fosters (Melissa's parents) heard that Melissa was missing, they called Swearingen. Swearingen claimed he did not remember the last name of the girl with whom he had met the day before. When Mrs. Foster reminded him her last name was "Trotter," and that a girl named Melissa Trotter was now missing, the phone went dead.

On December 11, Swearingen told an acquaintance that he anticipated being arrested by Montgomery County authorities.

Also on December 11, Swearingen noticed a patrol officer observing him. Swearingen sped away, leading the officer on a high-speed chase. The chase ended in front of the home of Swearingen's mother and stepfather. Swearingen was arrested on several outstanding warrants. While being placed in handcuffs, he asked that his hands be placed in front of him rather than behind. He explained that his wrist and ribs were sore because he had been in a bar fight the week before. Following his arrest, law enforcement authorities observed and photographed red marks on his neck, cheek, and back.

On December 17, two neighbors of his mother and stepfather collected numerous pieces of torn paper from their street. The papers turned out to be Melissa Trotter's class schedule and some health insurance paperwork her father had given her.

On January 2, Melissa's body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest. The location was heavily wooded, secluded, and remote. The police had previously searched the area three times without finding the body. They explained later that they would have had to walk within twenty feed of the body before seeing it.

Larry Swearingen was familiar with the area where Melissa's body had been found. He had driven a date around the vicinity just a few months earlier in his red pickup.

Melissa was laying on her back in a pile of bushes. Her right arm was above her head and slightly to the left. Her sweater, shirt, and bra were pulled up under her arms, exposing her breasts and back. Her jeans were still on. The fly was closed. The right rear pocket was torn downwards, exposing red underwear beneath. A note was in one pocket. The note had been given to Melissa by a friend on the day Melissa disappeared.

Melissa had creases on her back from her neck to her waist. The creases could have been caused by her body laying on the forest debris for an extended period of time.

There were no scratches on her exposed skin as one might expect had see been dragged through the brush. 

One shoe was on and the other was off, laying nearby. There was no soil on her shoes, as one might expect had she walked to that spot. The implication was that she had been murdered elsewhere and carried or dragged to the spot where she was found.

A piece of hosiery was knotted around her neck, as a ligature. The hosiery was one leg from a pair of pantyhose. Swearingen's landlord would later testify that he found the remainder of the pantyhose in Swearingen's mobile home as he was cleaning the trailer for another tenant. Terry Swearingen, Larry wife, would later testify that the pantyhose belonged to her.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joye Carter conducted the autopsy on 3 January. That was one day after Melissa's body had been discovered, 25 days after she had disappeared, and 22 days after Larry Swearingen had been arrested. She did not estimate a time of death. She did not note any evidence of sexual assault. She did not note any defensive wounds or evidence of restraint.

During Swearingen's trial for capital murder, Dr. Carter would testify that death was caused by asphyxia due to ligature strangulation. The lack of defensive wounds, such as broken fingernails and the difficulty of tying an elastic nylon around a struggling victim, suggested that the Melissa may have been unconscious when the ligature was applied.

The neck appeared to have suffered a sharp-force injury that would have been inflicted before death while the blood continued to circulate. Although there was subsequent animal activity and teeth marks at that same area of the neck, a cut with a knife could not be ruled out.

The left side of Melissa's face was much darker and more decomposed than the right. That would be consistent with her having sustained a bruise on the left side of her face. Animals are drawn to blood and a bruise would collect blood close to the skin's surface.

Melissa's tongue had a deep bruise, possibly caused by a bite. Such a bite would be consistent with Melissa being struck under the chin or biting down while being strangled.

There was no evidence of penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth. There was, however, discoloration on the vaginal wall. That discoloration could have been a bruise caused during sexual intercourse within three days of death, possibly on the day of death. Dr. Carter had not mentioned that bruise in her autopsy report.

Based on the state of decomposition, including the presence of fungi that take several weeks to develop, Dr. Carter estimated Melissa Trotter's death occurred 25 days prior to the discovery of her corpse. That matched exactly the date of Melissa's disappearance. Dr. Carter had not estimated a time of death in her autopsy report.

Melissa's stomach contents included a French fry-like form of potato, some chicken, and a small amount of greenish, vegetable material.

The State claimed the stomach contents were consistent with the tater tots Melissa had had eaten while at Montgomery College. The State claimed further that chicken was consistent with Chicken McNuggets Melissa might have purchased at the nearby McDonald's. Dr. Carter testified that a person's stomach will usually not empty in less than two hours, and that any food within the stomach at death will remain there.

Criminalist Sandra Musialowski, from the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified that several fibers recovered from Melissa's jacket were consistent with fibers from Swearingen's jacket.

Criminalist Musialowski testified also that several fibers found on Trotter were similar to seat material from Swearingen's vehicle. A few other fibers found on Trotter were similar to fibers from the headliner of Swearingen's truck and from the carpet in his home.

Criminalist Musialowski testified also that three hairs found in Swearingen's truck were microscopically similar to Melissa's hairs. Those hairs still contained the anagen root, indicating they had been forcibly removed.

Officer Ivan Wilson, also from the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified regarding a paint fleck found on Trotter's clothing. He testified that the quantity was "an insufficient amount to do all the testing that I normally do." The fleck, however, was similar in appearance to paint on Swearingen's red pickup.

A Luminol test conducted on the seats of Swearingen's truck indicated that they had been wiped down with Armor All. Two empty containers of Armor All wipes had been found in the garbage at Swearingen's home.

While Swearingen was in jail awaiting trial, a cellmate asked him whether he had committed the murder. Swearingen replied, "Fuck, yeah, I did it." Swearingen added that he was just trying to avoid the death penalty.

Swearingen's Fabrications
Larry Swearingen provided substantial assistance to the State of Texas in their effort to convict him. On three occasions, he clumsily attempted to fabricate exculpatory evidence. These clumsy efforts were used against him at trial.

Swearingen's first clumsy effort was claiming that his house had been burglarized.

Part of the circumstantial case presented against Swearingen at his trial was that his house was in disarray when he returned there with his wife. His wife noticed the disheveled state of their home as well as the strange cigarettes and the strange lighter. Apparently in an effort to explain the tumultuous state of his home, Swearingen contacted the police and reported a burglary. He falsely claimed to have been out of town from 11:00 AM on 7 December through 7:30 PM on 8 December. He also falsely claimed that someone had stolen his VCR and his Jet Ski. The police, however, found no sign of any prying mechanism on the doors or windows to his home. His Jet Ski was located at a repair shop where Swearingen had dropped it off for maintenance.

Swearingen's second clumsy effort was asking a friend to provide an alibi for him.

On 9 January, When Swearingen's friend, Elyese Ripley, visited him in jail, Swearingen asked her to say that she had been with him on the day Melissa disappeared. He asked her to say that they had gone to the Texaco-McDonald's restaurant near Montgomery College.

Swearingen's third effort was by far the most clumsy. While in jail awaiting trial, he attempted to compose an exculpatory letter from a mystery woman.

Swearingen foolishly decided to write the letter in Spanish, a language with which he was clearly less than fluent. He relied heavily on an English-to-Spanish dictionary. The resulting letter was so garbled and so ungrammatical that precise translation was impossible. The State's translator, Geneveva Perez, attempted an "official" translation. She testified that the letter "was written with all verbs in the infinitive form." She was forced to add comments "about certain words that actually didn't mean what they were intended to mean." She agreed that "three or four Spanish-speaking people would have different interpretations." Nonetheless, she was able to discern a fictional narrative. That narrative was of somebody name Ronnie who took Melissa Trotter to the forest and strangled her.

Ms. Perez' best-effort translation follows immediately.
I have information that I need to tell you about Melissa and Wanda. I was with the murderer of Melissa, and with the one that took Wanda from work. I am not sure what he did with Wanda, but I saw everything that happened to Melissa. He was talking to her in the parking lot. They went to school together is what he told me. "We drove for awhile, and then we went and had breakfast. I began to talk about sex when she said she had to go home." He hit her in the left eye, and she fell to the floor of her car. He took her to the wood and began to choke her with his hands at first, then he jerked (jalar is slang) her to the bushes. He cut her throat to make sure that she was dead. Her shoe came off when he jerked (slang) her into the bushes. Her jabear (cannot make out/ no such word in Spanish) was torn. I am in love with him, and I don't want him in jail. The man in jail doesn't deserve to be in jail, either. To make sure that you know, I am telling you the truth. She was wearing red panties when R.D. murdered her. He choked her with his hands first, but he used A piece of rope the truck from his truck; he had a piece of black rope that he used in his boat to anchor it, or something, he said. When he dragged her from the car, he put her in the shrub on her back. I know that I should turn him in, but he told me that he would kill me, too, and I believe him. He has told about this murder to 3 other women in the past, will tell you that he smokes, and he smoked with her at the college at 2:30 and drove a blue truck. His hair is blonde and brown and lives here. His name is Ronnie, but that is all I can tell, if you want more information, say it on paper and I will continue to write, but I want to come in.
According to the State, this purportedly anonymous, exculpatory letter included details of the crime that could have been known only to the person who murdered Melissa Trotter. Those details included the fact that Melissa was injured on the left side of her face, that her neck was cut, that one of her shoes had fallen off, that she was laid on her back among the bushes, and that she was wearing red underwear.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: The Defense Case

The Defense Case
Larry Swearingen offered a brief affirmative defense, but need hardly have bothered. He had impeached himself so thoroughly by his efforts to manufacture exculpatory evidence that the jury was unlikely to believe anything he said. Nonetheless, Swearingen testified that he did in fact encounter Melissa Trotter that day at the college, but only briefly. She was talking to another man. Swearingen did not go to McDonald's or anywhere else with her that day. Instead he went from the college to see his grandmother.

Swearingen's grandmother corroborated his testimony. She testified that he picked her up and took her to the post office around 2:00 PM, and that he was with her until around 2:50 PM. Assuming the grandmother testified truthfully and accurately, then Larry Swearingen was probably not responsible for the disappearance and murder of Melissa Trotter.

During their cross-examination of the grandmother, however, the State called into question her memory of both the date and time. They questioned her also about why she had not earlier informed the authorities of her grandson's alibi.

In addition to the alibi testimony, Swearingen's defense consisted of alternative explanations for the State's evidence of attempted rape. With respect to the state of Melissa's sweater, shirt, and bra being pulled above her breasts, the defense elicited testimony that it could have been caused when her body was dragged through the brush.

With respect to the possible vaginal bruise, the defense called its own medical expert. That expert disputed Dr. Carter's testimony that such a bruise could be sustained during normal sexual intercourse. The expert testified instead that Melissa Trotter suffered pelvic inflammatory disease, and that pelvic inflammation could cause such vaginal discoloration.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: The Jury


An Uncritical Jury

The State of Texas presented substantial circumstantial evidence that Larry Swearingen murdered Melissa Trotter. Swearingen, after all, was one of the last people to see Melissa alive, and the murder weapon (the pantyhose used as a ligature) was found at his home. There were, however, several curious aspects of the State's case that might have given a skeptical jury pause.

One cause for concern should have been the precision of the medical examiner's estimated date of death. Based on the state of decomposition and the presence of fungi, the medical examiner placed Melissa's death as having occurred 25 days prior to the autopsy. That timing conveniently corresponded to the very day Melissa disappeared. Such convenient precision would have suggested that the State's expert might have been willing to bias her findings in the State's favor, at the expense of her scientific integrity.

A second cause for concern should have been the pristine state of Melissa Trotter's stomach contents. The medical examiner testified she found a French fry-like form of potato and some chicken in Trotter's stomach. Those contents corresponded nicely with the tater-tots and the McNuggets the State presumed Trotter had eaten in the company of Swearingen. Dr. Carter testified that a person's stomach will usually not empty in less than two hours, and that any food within the stomach at death will remain there.

While food may remain in the stomach after death, it would seem unlikely that the food would remain so clearly identifiable after twenty-five days in a dead and decaying body. The stomach is more akin to a garbage disposal than it is to a Tupperware container. The stomach is a place of acids and enzymes designed to quickly disassemble food into an unrecognizable mess. Is it possible that after twenty-five days in a decaying stomach, masticated tater-tots would be easily recognizable as a French fry-like form of potato?

A skeptical juror might have wondered whether the stomach contents disputed, rather than substantiated, the medical examiner's estimated date of death. Perhaps, Melissa Trotter had been murdered only soon before her body was discovered. If so, Larry Swearingen would have been in jail when she was murdered. If so, Larry Swearingen would be factually innocent.

Adding to concerns about the date of Melissa Trotter's murder, the authorities found fresh blood under one of her fingernails. DNA testing of that blood excluded Larry Swearingen as the contributor.

Trial testimony about the blood came from Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Carter and from two employees of the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab. Taken as a whole, their testimony was that the initial testing of fingernail scrapings revealed no human DNA. A later inspection, however, revealed some "very tiny, bright red flakes." The flakes had a total size "no bigger than ... a point of a pencil." The flakes tested positive for human blood.

Given that the flakes were blood, and given that they were still bright red, the flakes were too well preserved to have been exposed to the elements for more than a couple of days. No one disputed the conclusion that the flakes were freshly deposited, within days of their discovery.

DNA testing of the flakes produced a profile consistent with a male, but inconsistent with Larry Swearingen. The DNA profile was run through the standard database system to search for a match, and no match was found. The DNA profile was then compared against that of six individuals identified by Swearingen's defense team. Again, no match was found.

Before the jury, the State argued that the blood came not from Melissa's assailant, but from contamination unrelated to the crime. State witnesses testified that the blood could have come from a deputy present during the autopsy, a deputy who claimed he had cut himself shaving earlier that morning. Alternatively, the state witnesses suggested that the flakes could have been circulating through the morgue's air conditioning system, that they wafted through a vent, and that they landed unnoticed on the exposed fingernail scrapings.

To a skeptical juror, the evidence would have described conflicting versions of events. In the State's version, Larry Swearingen dined with Melissa Trotter, sexually assaulted her, and then killed her, all on 8 December. That story would place Melissa's death twenty-five days before the autopsy, just as the medical examiner testified.

The alternative version would have been that the pristine blood beneath Melissa's fingernails and the nearly pristine food found in her stomach were evidence of a murder that occurred not long before her body was found. This alternative version would better explain the failure of the search parties to find Melissa's body, though they searched the area three times.

Since Larry Swearingen had been jailed three weeks prior to the discovery of the body, the evidence that the murder occurred soon before the body was discovered was evidence of Swearingen's innocence. To a skeptical juror, the evidence of a recent murder might have raised reasonable doubt about the State's case. The evidence might have caused a skeptical juror to vote Not Guilty.

A Compliant Jury
To obtain a conviction for capital murder, the State bore the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Larry Swearingen not only killed Melissa Trotter, but that he did so while sexually assaulting her or while kidnapping her. If the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Larry Swearingen sexually assaulted or kidnapped Melissa Trotter, then Swearingen would not have been eligible for the death penalty.

While the circumstantial evidence of murder was substantial, the evidence of sexual assault was wispy thin. Dr. Carter, the State's own medical expert, testified that Trotter's body showed no defensive wounds, no indication of restraints, and no scratches. Dr. Carter testified also that she found no evidence indicating penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth. Instead, Melissa was found with her pants on and the zipper closed. The arrangement of her sweater, shirt, and bra were consistent with her body being dragged along the forest floor.

The evidence of kidnapping was even thinner than the evidence of sexual assault. The evidence of non-existent.

When the jury found Larry Swearingen guilty of capital murder, it simply relieved the State of its burden to prove sexual assault or kidnapping beyond a reasonable doubt. It removed the State of its burden to offer any proof whatsoever.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: The Appellate Court


A Compliant Appellate Court
In his appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Larry Swearingen claimed that the State had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had kidnapped or sexually assaulted Melissa Trotter. While the CCA acknowledged the evidence was weak, they nonetheless denied his appeal. I excerpt below from the CCA opinion in Swearingen v. State (2003).
Based on the circumstantial evidence presented at trial, a rational jury could have concluded that: Trotter left the college with Swearingen in his truck. After she ate some chicken and green vegetables, he made sexual advances which she rejected. This rejection upset him and he hit her on the left side of her face. Then, through the use of the force or intimidation created by having hit her, he restrained her and substantially interfered with her liberty by confining her in his truck while moving her to the forest without her consent and that he did so with the intent to prevent her liberation by either secreting her in a place where she was not likely to be found or by using or threatening to use deadly force. 
A rational jury could also have concluded that at some point during the restraint, knowing that Trotter was unconscious or physically unable to resist, Swearingen intentionally committed acts in furtherance of his intent to have sexual relations with her, such as pulling up her bra and possibly penetrating her vagina. ... A rational jury could then find that Swearingen did attempt to, and succeeded in causing Trotter's death in the course of the same criminal episode. ... 
Based on the circumstantial evidence and the multitude of possible scenarios suggested by the physical evidence, a rational jury could have entertained a reasonable doubt regarding Swearingen's guilt. The question, however, is whether a rational jury would have necessarily entertained a reasonable doubt regarding the aggravating elements of the offense. 
Each piece of evidence supporting the findings of kidnapping or sexual assault might appear weak and tentative when viewed in isolation, even in the light most favorable to the verdict. The forensic evidence was inconclusive, and in many cases the expert witnesses could not conclude that one explanation was more likely than not. But they also could not rule out certain possibilities, such as the existence of a bruise or a knife wound, or that Trotter was unconscious when the ligature was applied. ... 
While each piece of evidence lacked strength in isolation, 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.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: Blow Flies


Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark naked, and let water-flies
Blow me into abhorring! rather make
My country's high pyramids my gibbet,
And hang me up in chains!
                             -- William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Blow Flies to the Rescue
Blow flies were so named for the effect their maggots have on decaying meat. Blow flies are known also as bluebottles, greenbottles, cluster flies, and carrion flies. They are frequently the first insects to invade a dead body, since they can smell carrion from ten miles distant, and since they can travel faster than their land-based counterparts. Upon arrival, the female deposits her eggs onto the body, sometimes within minutes of death, but only during daylight, and only if the air is not too cold. The eggs soon hatch and begin their predictable, temperature-dependent progression through their larval stages. So consistent is the development that blow fly larvae can provide an estimate of how long a body has been dead.

More traditional time-of-death estimation techniques become increasingly unreliable after three days postmortem. Blow fly larvae, on the other hand, can provide reasonably accurate date-of-death estimates for up to four weeks postmortem. Any such entomological estimate, however, would require that the specific species be identified and the ambient temperature history be well known. An accurate estimate would require also that the entomological evidence be properly preserved.

While blow flies have long been associated with death, they saved Larry Swearingen's life.

At least they did so for the time being. A day before Swearingen's first scheduled execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him stay to consider new defense claims that blow flies proved he was in jail when Melissa Trotter's body was deposited in the Sam Houston National Forest.

Sometime after his standard appeals were denied, Swearingen's appellate team turned their attention to the previously ignored insect evidence. In her autopsy report, Dr. Carter noted "postmortem insect and animal activity" and that the "oral cavity contained fly larvae." Swearingen's defense team attempted to secure the entomological evidence from the State. The State opposed the release of such evidence. At a post-conviction hearing, the State argued:
Specifically, the insects, obviously, the State assumes this stuff is going to get examined and corroborate the evidence at trial. In the unlikely event it shows a few days less than 24 days, 18 days or something, the question is, will the Court then be able to find that there’s a reasonable probability the outcome of the trial would have been different with that information. And based on all the other facts in the case, I don’t think you can say that, because we still know, based on other facts, Larry took her with him that day, Larry killed her that day, because she still had food contents, what was presumably food in her stomach.
Despite the State's babbling argument, the State court agreed with the State prosecutors.  Later, however, the Federal court disagreed with the State court, and Swearingen was allowed to see the evidence. The State provided a petri dish that contained numerous desiccated pupae, larvae, and insect parts. Forensic entomologist Dr. Dael Morris described the dish and its contents.
Exhibit 218 consisted of 11, 3 1/2", standard plastic petri dishes loosely containing "scrapings" collected from Melissa's articles of clothing during autopsy and subsequent forensic examinations. It appears that insect material from each item of clothing was dislodged onto the catch papers and subsequently funneled into the petris. As expected, the contents of each petri largely consisted of a dried hodge-podge of dehydrated insect larvae and other insects and insect parts, fibres and other non-insect materials. I examined all of the exhibits for insect evidence, including the articles of clothing, inside and out, and sorted through the insect material contained in the petris. Representative insect samples were submitted to the University of West Virginia laboratory for DNA analysis in order to determine species. Species determination is critical in the final analyses since developmental periods vary between different species of calliphorids. 
Exhibit 218 petri dishes contained dried remains of insects including many dehydrated fly larvae (maggots) of various ages. The plastic petris were of the variety that cannot hold preservative fluids. Indeed, the plastic petris are the variety designed to allow air to enter to facilitate the growth of microbiological organisms. Live insect specimens placed in them would have continued to develop until they were either eaten by the predatory insects, ants and beetles, also collected into the same containers, or until they eventually succumbed to suffocation once exhibits were sealed into plastic bags. Continued development in the containers was expected since there was no indication in any of the documentation read in advance, especially the pathology report, that any insect specimens had been killed and preserved. 
Hundreds of dehydrated maggots were sorted in exhibit 218, including Calliphoridae, Piophilidae and Spaeroceridae, There were few signs of fly development beyond the third instar larval stage. A single blow fly adult had evidently emerged in the petris to be partially consumed by insect predators. Seen in three fragments, the head, a partial thorax and a partial abdomen it was identified as Cynomyopsis cadaverina (Diptera: Calliphoridae) through classic taxonomic treatment of what was left of the head. 
The fragmented remains of a single calliphorid pupal case from which the adult fly evidently emerged was also seen. This was not a surprise since a single newly formed calliphorid pupa was observed in the photographic evidence. There were no other signs of pupae. This newly formed pupa was the key specimen in determining the age of first colonizing flies.
Though Dr. Dael Morris does not so explicitly state, her analysis was conservative in that it tended to estimate the earliest possible date of infestation. Since the flies were stored in a fashion that allowed them to continue their development, some of their growth could have occurred after the body was discovered.

As an example, assume a scenario in which the body was placed in the forest in the morning, was colonized within minutes, and was discovered in the afternoon. Assume further that the entomological evidence was stored in a manner that allowed development for seven days, but no longer. Assume finally that an analysis conducted years later determined that the oldest of the pupae was seven days old. In that case, the analyst would be able to declare only that the body had been deposited in the forest no sooner than seven days prior to discovery. That would be a conservative estimate.

While such a finding would be technically correct, given its careful wording, it would seriously overstate how long the body had been in the forest before discovery. With that qualification in mind, consider Dr. Morris' conclusion.
Results of DNA analysis, taxonomic examinations and autopsy and death scene photographic evidence indicate that Cynomyopsis cadaverina was the first fly species to colonize Melissa Trotter's remains. ... death scene temperatures were not favorable for blow fly egg laying until December 18th, and this date is consistent with the stage of development of C. cadaverina in this case.
Even given its conservative nature, Dr. Morris' entomological analysis indicated that Larry Swearingen was in jail when Melissa Trotter's body was placed in Sam Houston National Forest.

Dr. James Arends, a consulting entomologist, substantiated Dr. Morris' analysis and conclusion. I excerpt from his report.
Melissa Trotter's body according to the autopsy was recovered in January 2, 1999, from the San Jacinto National Forest, located in Southeast Texas, near Conroe, Texas. Dr. Carter did not provide a date of death in her autopsy report, but apparently testified that fungal growth and insect activity, in her opinion, indicated that Ms. Trotter had been dead for 25 days, which put her death exactly on the December 8, 1998, the date she was last scene by state witnesses. 
The autopsy report contains several remarkable observations that indicate a date of death later than December 11, 1998. ... By autopsy, there is also a remarkable absence of animal activity, which is unlikely in a corpse exposed for 22 days in the environment where it was found. Finally, Ms. Morris identified a single species of blow fly, C. Cadeverina, from the insect material collected from the evidence in this case, whereas a body exposed outdoors for the length of time that the State maintains would in all probability exhibit colonization by several species. ... 
It is my forensic entomological opinion, based on the information that I have been presented, that the temperature conditions for December 1998 and the developmental stages of fly larvae and pupae reported by Ms. Morris that Ms. Trotter's body was exposed and colonized by blow flies after December 11, 1998.
Dr. Arends repeatedly references December 11 because that was the date that Larry Swearingen was jailed. If Melissa Trotter died after December 11, then Larry Swearingen could not be guilty of her murder.

Dr. Arends dated his report as "this 19th day of January, 2007." Larry Swearingen was scheduled for execution five days hence. Four days hence, one day before his execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Larry Swearingen a stay.

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: Autolysis


It would take them two years to do so, but the Texas courts would eventually deny Swearingen's bug-based appeal and bring him for a second time within one day of execution. In the meantime, Swearingen's appellate team had moved away from entomological arguments and focused instead on an observation Dr. Arends made in his initial entomological report. I present below another excerpt from Dr. Arend's earlier report.
Dr. Carter's description of internal organs indicates substantially less autolyzation than would be expected if Ms. Trotter had been dead under temperature conditions indicated by the Conroe, TX data. The weight in grams for internal organs in Dr. Carter's reports indicate only a reduction in weight due to dehydration of only 30 percent, which again indicates exposure in the San Jacinto Forest after December 11, 1998.
Autolysis is from the Greek words for "self" and "splitting." Autolysis is the digestion of cells or tissues by their own enzymes. Simply put, autolysis is self-digestion. A corpse is consumed not only by scavengers large and small, it is consumed by itself.

Some internal organs are particularly susceptible to autolysis. The pancreas, for example, can begin to liquefy within hours of death. The spleen, the brain, the liver, and the gastrointestinal mucosa (lining) will autolyze within a week. A variety of other internal organs self-digest just as quickly.

Drs. Glenn Larkin and Lloyd White prepared separate reports for Swearingen's appellate team. In their reports, they provided estimated dates of death based on the autolysis (or lack thereof) of the internal organs. Both doctors were well qualified to make such an estimate. Each was board certified in forensic pathology. Each had testified as an expert witness in numerous trials. Dr. White had performed hundreds of autopsies. Dr. Larkin had performed more than two thousand.

Each of the two forensic pathologists prepared multiple reports for the Court and the appellate team. The reports focused primarily on the decompositional state of the internal organs. I excerpt below from Dr. Larkin's various reports, presenting information on less than the complete set of organs he discussed.

Regarding the pancreas:
If Trotter was killed in the woods or her body left in the woods near the time of death, the pancreas would not have been present in the condition described by Dr. Carter unless exposure in the Sam Houston Forest occurred after December 28 or December 29, 1998. ... Pancreatic cells produce digestive enzymes upon death ... Liquefaction of the pancreas to the point it loses internal structure and becomes a sludge incapable of being sectioned consequently may occur within 24 to 48 hours even under hospital or morgue conditions where the environment and temperature are controlled.
Regarding the brain:
Dr. Carter states that the brain was in a "semiliquid" state, and states, further, that "upon removal" there was complete loss of normal tissue architecture. However, the report shows that the brain retained sufficient integrity even upon removal to enable Dr. Carter to make judgments regarding the presence or absence of ... hematomas. Dr. Carter was also able to ... exclude preexisting lesions. ... If Trotter's body had been placed in the woods as late as December 23, 1998, Dr. Carter would not have been able to remove the brain for examination; it would have been a soup incapable of being examined for lesions or abnormalities. Dr. Carter's description of brain tissue, therefore, strongly confirms that Trotter's body was left in the woods at least two weeks after the date on which Mr. Swearingen was incarcerated.
Regarding the liver:
Dr . Carter's examination of the liver is remarkable evidence that Trotter's body had not been in the woods for more than ten days and in all probability for far less time. The liver is a large organ that losses integrity and autolyzes relatively rapidly, forming gas bubbles as it does, which makes it ... a bit like bubble wrap. However, Dr. Carter was able to remove the liver and section it, using essentially the same methods used upon the pancreas. Microscopic examination failed to reveal perforations due to gas bubbles that would have formed relatively soon after exposure under conditions found in the Conroe area in December 1998 and January 1999.
Regarding the mucosa:
Mucosa is a fragile tissue that readily decomposes under temperature conditions such as those reported for the Conroe area in December of 1998 and January of 1999. The gastric mucosa and intestinal mucosa do not decompose in a living organism due to the protective enzymes that these tissues secrete while functioning. After death, these tissues quickly disintegrate. In Trotter's case, the conditions in which the mucosa were preserved allowed Dr. Carter to identify them, examine them for pathology, and subject them to mechanical processes such as dissection and rinsing. It is a medical certainty that these tissues would not have retained the integrity seen at autopsy unless the body had been left in the Sam Houston National Forest less than ten days prior to the date of recovery. Indeed, it is very unlikely, that Dr. Carter would have found these tissues in the condition described at autopsy unless the body had only been exposed in the woods for substantially less time -- a matter of 3 to 4 day.
Dr. Larkin also made an observation that seemingly should have been obvious to the medical experts from the very beginning:
Furthermore, Dr. Carter reported that the weight of the body clothed was 113 lbs. While the nude body was 105 lbs. Medical records show that approximately two weeks before December 8, 1998, Trotter weighed 109 pounds at her doctor's office. The weights are remarkable in that they demonstrate very insubstantial or no loss in body weight. Even if a corpse is not scavenged -- and there was remarkably little scavenging in this case -- a body will lose up to 90% of its weight, in less time than 25 days, when exposed under temperature conditions prevailing in the Conroe area between December 8, 1998 and January 2, 1999.
In other words, if Larry Swearingen had killed Melissa Trotter and deposited her body in the Sam Houston National Forest, he would have obviously had to do so before 11 December when he was arrested. If Trotter's body had been in the forest for that length of time, then it would have weighed less than twenty pounds when it was discovered. Instead, it weighed over one hundred pounds, almost as much as it did during her last doctor's visit.

Dr. Luis Sanchez also determined that Melissa Trotter's body had been placed in the forest well after Larry Swearingen had been jailed. Dr. Sanchez had replaced Dr. Carter as the Chief Medical Examiner of Harris County. Because of controversy during Dr. Carter's term as chief medical examiner, Dr. Sanchez reviewed a number of autopsies conducted under her watch. One of the autopsies he reviewed was that of Melissa Trotter.

At an evidentiary hearing, Dr. Sanchez not only testified he could find no evidence of vaginal bruising, he testified that Melissa's body could not have been in the woods any longer than ten to fifteen days. The transcript segment below deals only with his assessment of the pancreas.
A. You know, my opinion was -- my opinion is that, based on the evidence that I have reviewed, it is unlikely that the body was there in that field for over 10 to 15 days. 
Q. Particularly, the basis of that opinion, if you look at the pancreas, what does it describe? 
A. You know, the pathologist described the pancreas. It gave the weight of the pancreas and also the description of the morphological features of the pancreas. 
Q. And was she able to remove this pancreas for observation and sectioning? 
A. Yes. 
Q. And in your experience, does the pancreas autolyze virtually completely within a matter of days? 
A. Well, it really depends on the circumstances. But it's one of those, again, organs of the body that tends to autolyze quite rapidly. 
Q. In fact, it may, under hostile conditions, autolyze completely within, say, 48 hours? 
A. Well, I wouldn't say within 48 hours, but sometimes quite quickly, yeah, within days. 
Q. What does it mean for it to be autolyzed? 
A. That means it's, it's the breakdown of the tissue due to their own, again, enzymes and chemicals. It's not due to bacteria. It's due to the breakdown of those cells that are releasing enzymes that basically break down the tissue. 
Q. And once the organ is completely autolyzed, can the pancreas be sectioned and examined for destruction? 
A. No. If it's autolyzed, it's become like liquid, liquefied.
Based on the state of Melissa Trotter's internal organs, Drs. Larkin, White, and Sanchez established with scientific certainty that the body had been left in the forest less than two weeks prior to its discovery. The body had, in fact, probably been there less than three or four days.

Larry Swearingen was factually innocent.