Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Most Innocent Man on Death Row: Histology


Histology comes from the Greek words for tissue and study. Histology is the microscopic study of tissues and the cells that comprise them. A histological examination of the bright red blood flakes found underneath Melissa's fingernails would, for example, show the cell architecture to be largely intact. Most of the cells would still have a well-defined nucleus protected by well-defined cell walls. Such well-defined cells could not have been decomposing for more than a few days.

The State concluded correctly that the bright red blood flakes found beneath Melissa Trotter's fingernails could be no more than several days old. The State, however, concluded incorrectly that the blood cells could have come only from contamination. The State declared it simply impossible that the bright red flakes and their third-party DNA cleared Larry Swearingen of Melissa Trotter's murder.

The State, however, knew or should have known that Melissa Trotter's cells had been decomposing for the same length of time as the third-party blood cells. Both sets of cells, those from Melissa's body and those from the third party's blood, had been decomposing for only a few days, and the State had the microscope slides to prove it.

Unknown to Swearingen's defense and appellate teams, five different samples of Melissa Trotter's tissues had been dehydrated, infused with paraffin as a preservative, stained with dye for enhanced visibility, sliced thin, and pressed between small, rectangular glass plates. This process preserved the tissues indefinitely as microscope slides ready for histologic examination.

The State prepared and stored five such slides, one each for heart, lung, nerve, fat, and vascular tissue. One can only presume that after such diligent effort, someone bothered to examine the slides through a microscope. One can only presume that the person would have then seen in private that which would later become public. Melissa Trotter's cells maintained their basic architecture. Most of them still showed well-developed nuclei. Most of them still showed well-developed walls. Melissa's cells had been decomposing for no more than a few days. Larry Swearingen could not have possibly killed her.

Those slides were suppressed and kept from the defense, just as the stalker evidence had been suppressed and kept from the defense. They were not mentioned in the autopsy report. They were not mentioned by any State witness or expert during trial or during any preliminary hearing. In fact, when the defense expert at trial testified about the absence of slides, neither the State nor any of the State's experts made any effort to correct this unintentionally false testimony.

The existence of the critical histological evidence was discovered by Swearingen's appellate team in January of 2009. Since Swearingen was scheduled to die on the 27th of that month, time was short. The slides were examined by Dr. Lloyd White, mentioned previously, and Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, Chief Medical Examiner of Galveston County. They each issued a report on January 21, just six days before the State was once again scheduled to execute Larry Swearingen.

Of the heart tissue, Dr. White wrote:
Well-stained nuclei are present in nearly all of cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells). ... The disappearance of nuclear detail within one or two days of cell death is a phenomenon recognized in all basic medical pathology texts. ... The appearance of the cardiomyocytes indicates that death did not occur more than two or three days before recovery of the body from the Sam Houston National Forest.
Of the nerve tissue, Dr. White wrote:
A piece of nerve tissue which is sectioned longitudinally was present in the Harris County Medical Examiner ... the nuclei are plentiful and well preserved ... The subcellular detail ... disappears within a matter of 2 or 3 days after death unless the tissue is fixed and preserved. The appearance ... is that of fresh tissue from a recently deceased person and is nearly identical to that from a live person.
Of the vascular and fat tissue, Dr. White wrote:
Vascular tissue was present in fat and lung tissue on the Harris County Medical Examiner slides. ... The vessel contents include intact red blood cells ... Nuclei are present ... The fat cells are also all intact. ... This tissue is well preserved, which would not be the case if decomposition had progressed much more than 48 hours under conditions in the National Forest. ... The appearance is of tissue of a very recently deceased person.
Of the lung tissue, Dr. White wrote:
Even at low magnification the coloration and the structure of the tissue is that of well preserved tissue that has undergone minimal autolysis. The walls of the alveoli are formed by endothelial cells which are elongated to form a membrane that is only several microns thick. Nonetheless these fragile structures are intact throughout this section of tissue ... 
The architecture and cellular detail seen in the lung tissue would not be discernible in a body left in the environment of the National Forest unless death occurred within two or three days of recovery.
Dr. Pustilnik confirmed Dr. White's analysis.
The review of the microscopic slides demonstrates multiple tissue types in a remarkably good state of preservation. Nuclear and cytoplasmic details of the tissue and other supportive elements such as lung tissue, myocardium, adipose tissue, blood vessels, blood elements, and connective tissue are all in remarkably good shape showing little, if any degradation or nuclear or cytoplasmic detail. ... 
In summary, without prior refrigeration the deceased was killed within reasonable certainty between five and to seven days prior to her discovery. This would put the date of death on or about December 26, 1998. In addition, the absence of mummification and desiccation the ears, as well as to the fingertips is consistent with there not having been prior prolonged refrigeration of the deceased.  
In other words, Larry Swearingen was in jail for at least two weeks before Melissa Trotter was killed. He is therefore factually innocent of her murder.

1 comment:

Rick.Bonin said...

Where is that anonymous poster with the big mouth now?

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