Thursday, December 20, 2012

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.

1 comment:

Rick.Bonin said...

Just like some of the TOD evidence you presented in the Hughes case, this seems like Forensics 101 stuff. What is going on in Texas?

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