Thursday, December 20, 2012

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.

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