Texas executes Larry Swearingen despite contested forensic evidence

Death penalty chamber in Ohio
(Image credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images)

Texas executed Larry Ray Swearingen on Wednesday night for the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. The Supreme Court had denied his request for a stay just before 6 p.m. CDT, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had declined to commute his sentence, and state and federal courts had upheld his conviction. The prosecutor who got Swearingen's conviction, Kelly Blackburn, said he's sure Texas executed the right man, as did Trotter's mother. But Swearingen has maintained his innocence from the beginning, and his defense team has steadily poked holes in the forensic evidence, calling it "junk science."

"Today the state of Texas murdered an innocent man," Swearingen said in a statement released to The Washington Post on Wednesday, before his death. His last words were: "Lord forgive 'em. They don't know what they're doing."

Swearingen was convicted on strong circumstantial evidence, but earlier this month his lawyers presented new evidence suggesting that the key piece of physical evidence — half a pair of pantyhose that prosecutors said matched hose used to strangle Trotter — didn't match. The blood under Trotter's fingernails was from a man but not Swearingen — a state lab technician attested that the blood flakes were probably evidence contamination, though the state lab said earlier this month that the technician had no grounds for that testimony. And experts said Trotter was probably dead no longer than two weeks when hunters found her in the woods; Swearingen had been in jail for three weeks for unpaid parking tickets.

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"Larry Swearingen needs to be removed from the annals of history as far as I'm concerned," Blackburn said. "A bad man got what he deserved tonight." Swearingen's attorney, James Rytting, disagreed. "They may put Larry Swearingen under," he said. "But his case is not going to die."

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