Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Strangulation of Melissa Trotter

Two seemingly insignificant incidents intersected recently in surprising fashion. The surprise, to me at least, is that I have long overlooked a powerful argument of Larry Swearingen's innocence. I have overlooked a gaping hole in the State's theory of the crime.

The first incident occurred as I was working my way through the Numb3rs episodes on Netflix. I was watching Season 1, Episode 8.  From TV.com:
A man wanted for stock fraud is found garroted in his apartment, and the crime is eerily similar to a murder committed a year earlier, a case in which Don closed when an ex-con confessed. Now, Don must re-investigate the old case to determine if he put an innocent man in jail. He asks Charlie to go over the evidence to see if he missed anything the first time around.
As part of his review, Charlie finds that "according to the FBI's crime stats, in the entire country, three or four people are killed with a garrote every year."

Holy Rarity, Batman!

I had become so used to reading / researching cases of strangulation that I simply presumed they were frequent. Melissa Trotter was strangled with one leg of a pantyhose, and Texas wants to execute Larry Swearingen as her murderer.

I've been writing about Anthony Allen Shore who acknowledges strangling four other young women to death. Shore is far more likely the one who murdered Melissa Trotter than is Swearingen, particularly since Swearingen was in jail when Trotter was murdered.

I've looked a little into the case of Boston Strangler (who almost certainly was not Albert DeSalvo), and  I'm aware of the Hillside Strangler (who was actually two people working in concert).

JonBenet Ramsey was also strangled.

I really could go on and on, so the number of 3 to 4 strangulations per year seemed way too low. I therefore assumed the show's writers meant a particular type of ligature. I also thought a garrote was a ligature with a handle at each end, used as per the sketch below.

The murder weapon used in the Numb3rs episode only reinforced my belief. Here's a portion of the garrote from that episode. If those gloves had a length of wire between them, then they would fit my understanding of a garrote. If, on the other hand, those gloves were bound tightly together by the wiring, they would not fit my understanding of a garrote.

Here's a portion of the murder weapon used in the JonBenet Ramsey case. The FBI referred to it as a garrote. If there was another similar handle on the other end, it would fit my notion of a garrote.

Here's the device Anthony Allen Shore used to kill Carmen Estrada: There was only one handle, and Shore used it to tighten the ligature by twisting it.

When I begin checking definitions, however, I find only modest support for my thought that a garrote must include two handles, or even one. Instead I find that many sources define garrote as simply a synonym for a ligature. From Wikipedia:
A stick may be used to tighten the garrote (the Spanish word actually refers to the stick itself) so it is a pars pro toto where the eponymous component may actually be absent. In Spanish, the term may also refer to a rope and stick used to constrict a limb as a torture device.
From that article, here's a photo of someone being executed by means of a garrote (Manila, 1901):

A method of execution formerly practiced in Spain, in which a tightened iron collar is used to strangle or break the neck of a condemned person. ... A cord or wire used for strangling.
A method of execution by strangulation ... the apparatus used ... an implement (as a wire with a handle at each end) for strangulation
A method of capital punishment of Spanish origin in which an iron collar is tightened around a condemned person's neck until death occurs by strangulation or by injury to the spinal column at the base of the brain ... the collarlike instrument used for this method of execution ... an instrument, usually a cord or wire with handles attached at the ends, used for strangling a victim.
From  Lexic:
An iron collar formerly used in Spain to execute people by strangulation ... something, especially a cord or wire, used for strangulation
A weapon consisting of a wire or cord with handles at each end, used in strangulation ... an iron band placed around the neck and tightened in order to execute somebody
I realized recently that I'm beginning to prefer Bing Maps to Goggle Maps for some applications. Now I realize that I prefer Bing Dictionary to the some of the other online dictionaries, since it reinforces my preconceived notion of what constitutes a garrote.

Even if the Numb3rs episode was correct in that there are only 3 or 4 garrote murders each year in the U.S., that number is of no use to me because it was not accompanied by a definition of garrote. Even if it had been accompanied by a definition, it would have been meaningless in the case of Melissa Trotter since no object (other than the murderer's hands) were used to tighten the pantyhose leg around her neck. I therefore let the number just rattle around in my head.

Later it struck me that I should try and find out how frequently someone is strangled. Perhaps such an occurrence is less common than I assumed. If it was sufficiently rare, it would suggest that Melissa Trotter was more likely murdered by someone known to use a ligature (such as Shore) than someone who had no history of using a ligature (such as Swearingen).

It took me a while, but I finally found this document. Click to enlarge.

Averaging the data for the four years, I get 123.5 strangulations per year out of 14,085 murders per year. That's 0.9%. That includes manual as well as ligature strangulations.

Then I found this document.

This document breaks the data down not only by weapon, but by the age of the victim. Melissa Trotter was only 19 years old when she was murdered. According to the data, in 2002, 1,184 people between the ages of 17 and 19 were murdered. Of those, only 6 were strangled. That's only 0.5%.

This article provides data indicating that the ratio of manual strangulation to ligature strangulation is 10 to 8. The sample size, however, was small.

This article provides data indicating that the ratio of manual strangulation to ligature strangulation is 46 to 23. The mean age of the victims, however, was 78 years.

Assuming ligature strangulations constitute 40% of all strangulations, they constitute only 0.2% of all homicides.

Whatever the final, more precise numbers may be, it is exceptionally unlikely that Melissa Trotter was murdered by anyone other than a person who has demonstrated a propensity for ligature strangulation. Larry Swearingen is not such a person. Anthony Allen Shore is.

So much for the first of two intersecting incidents in this already overly-long post. I'll have to pick up the pace for the second of the two intersecting incidents.

Three days ago I received a comment to my post Spectacular News in the Swearingen Case from astute reader Matthew Faler.
TSJ - I largely agree with the science in this matter regarding how long Trotter had been dead when her body was found. However, a few lingering questions bother me (1) was she wearing the same clothes when they found her as she was last seen in? and (2) if she was alive for several weeks after she went missing, where was she?
I responded with:
You ask two $1,000,000 questions. I have a couple 10 cent answers. 
First, I've wondered myself about the clothes. I've never seen that discussed. It seems as if the police could have clarified that point reasonably easily. A number of people saw her shortly before she disappeared. Was she wearing the same clothes or not? If the clothes were different, where did she change? If the clothes were the same, had she worn them continuously or had they been cleaned? 
I suspect the police / prosecutor must know the answer. I suspect that since it is a secret, it doesn't help their case. My guess is that information about the clothing would tend to further exonerate Swearingen. 
Regarding where she might have been, I speculated in my series Who Killed Melissa Trotter: Anthony Allen Shore.
His comment and my reply, coupled with the infrequency with which people kill via ligature strangulation, caused me to do what I should have done early on. If I had been a juror in the case and if I had failed as I had just failed as a blogger, I would have difficulty living with myself. That task is challenging enough as it is.

Here's what I didn't do. I didn't attempt to recreate the crime, even in my mind. I never walked through the State's case step-by-step to see if it made sense, to see if they proved the critical elements beyond a reasonable doubt. I was so focused (initially) on the post-conviction science and (later) on the possibility that Shore killed Trotter that I failed to carefully walk through the State's case. It wouldn't have been hard. It wouldn't have taken very long.

I'll do it now, at least the portion immediately surrounding the murder. The State claimed that Swearingen and Trotter had recently met and had arranged to have lunch the next day. Swearingen told some friends that he had met a young woman named Melissa and that if things went well, he would "have Melissa for lunch."

Swearingen picked up Melissa at the community college where Melissa went to school. After a delay no greater than an hour and a half, the two arrived at Swearingen's mobile home. While there, the two had a sexual encounter that left a bruise on the wall of Trotter's vagina. At some point, there was a struggle that left Swearingen's home in disarray. Swearingen strangled Trotter with one leg of his wife's pantyhose, put Trotter in his truck, drove to the Sam Houston National Forest, dumped Trotter's body, then returned home.

Here's where the State's case makes absolutely no sense. After having sex, Swearingen decided to kill Trotter, for whatever reason. To kill his victim, he didn't use a firearm, as do 70% of the murderers in this country. Perhaps he didn't own a firearm, or have it at the ready, or feared the noise.

Nor did Swearingen stab his victim to death, as do 13% of the murderers in this country. Surely he had a knife or pair of scissors in his home. He must have had something of the sort in order to cut one leg from his wife's pantyhose.

Nor did Swearingen asphyxiate his victim, as do 6.4% of all murderers in this country. There must have been a pillow nearby.

Nor did Swearingen pummel or kick or stomp his victim to death, with his hands or feet, as do 6.2% of murderers in this country. I know that those makeshift weapons were handy.

Nor did Swearingen bludgeon his victim with a blunt object, as do 4.4% of murderers in this country. Surely he had a frying pan or a hammer laying around.

Nor did Swearingen strangle his victim with his bare hands, as do 0.6% of murderers in this country. Once again, I'm confident those makeshift weapons were readily available.

Instead, according to the State, Swearingen elected to strangle his victim with a ligature, as do only 0.2% of the murderers in this country. Only 1 in 500 murders is committed by ligature strangulation, and the State's case is even more unlikely than that, more unlikely than 1 in 500.

In a moment of passion and panic, Swearingen did not just grab a nearby object to strangle his victim. He did not use any of the victim's clothing, such as a sweater arm, or a brassiere, or a belt. Nor did he use a pillowcase or a lamp cord. According to the State, Swearingen decided to use his wife's pantyhose.

But the State's case is still more unlikely than described so far.

Swearingen took time to manufacture a ligature from his wife's pantyhose. Instead of stabbing or cutting his victim with a knife or scissors, he used a knife or scissors to stab or cut his wife's pantyhose. The State offers no explanation why Swearingen would do such a thing in such a frantic moment, nor does it explain what Melissa Trotter may have been doing while Swearingen manufactured the ligature that would be used to kill her.

And still it is worse than all this.

According to the State, Swearingen left the remainder her of his wife's pantyhose behind when he took Melissa's body to Sam Houston National Forest. He presumably removed the body from his home so that his crime would not be discovered, but he left the obvious remnant of the murder weapon behind.

He couldn't have left it behind carelessly or unconsciously. It must have been deliberate, because he hid the remnant of his hastily crafted murder weapon so well that the police were unable to find it on either of two thorough searches. Swearingen hid it so well that it would not be discovered for three weeks, in the garbage outside his home, after the police finally knew which murder weapon was used to kill Melissa Trotter.