Judge sets death date for Montgomery County killer
After seven thwarted attempts, Montgomery County has finally succeeded in setting yet another execution date for its only death row convict, a Willis man who raped a 19-year-old coed before strangling her with panty hose nearly two decades ago.
Larry Swearingen, convicted of slaughtering Montgomery College student Melissa Trotter in 1998 and dumping her body in the Sam Houston National Forest, is slated to meet his fate in Huntsville's death chamber on Nov. 16, a judge ruled late Wednesday.
"It still won't bring back Melissa," her mother, Sandy Trotter said in July.
"There are no winners in this because we still don't have Melissa."
Victim advocate Andy Kahan said it's been a "painstaking" wait for the Trotter family.
"Even when you finally believe that you're going to achieve justice, until it actually happens you're questioning whether the actual execution will take place or not," he said.
And in Swearingen's case, those questions are particularly well placed.
This is the state's eighth effort to get Swearingen's execution on the calendar. At least four times, similar requests yielded a death date, but every time the Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution.
But it is those repeated bids for testing that have become the hallmark of Swearingen's legal case. For years, his lawyers have insisted that crime scene DNA taken from evidence near Trotter's body could hold the keys to prove his innocence. But prosecutors - and higher courts - have deemed such testing unnecessary.
At least twice, a trial court judge sided with Swearingen's testing requests - but each time the state slapped down the lower court's grant, ruling that new DNA wouldn't be enough to counter the "mountain of evidence" pointing to Swearingen's guilt.
Swearingen and Trotter were seen in the college's library together on Dec. 8, 1998 - the day of the teen's disappearance. Afterward, a biology teacher spotted Trotter leaving the school with a man. Hair and fiber evidence later showed that she'd been in Swearingen's car and home the day she vanished.
The killer's wife testified that she came home that evening to find the place in disarray - and in the middle of it all were Trotter's lighter and cigarettes. Swearingen later filed a false burglary report, claiming his home had been broken into while he was out of town.
That afternoon, Swearingen placed a call routed through a cell tower near FM 1097 in Willis - a spot he would have passed while heading from his house to the Sam Houston National Forest where Trotter's decomposing body was found 25 days later.
"A too trusting 19-year-old in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sandy Trotter said, recalling her daughter's death. "It's just every parent's nightmare."
Swearingen was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000. He went on to file what prosecutors described as "an abundance of habeas corpus applications, pro se motions, mandamus petitions, civil-right actions, and amended pleadings in both state and federal courts."
The state's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected all seven of Swearingen's habeas appeals, and in July a federal district court slapped down a civil suit seeking to win the convicted killer more DNA testing.
Through it all, Swearingen maintained his innocence.
"The way I look at it, I'm a POW of Texas," the former electrician has told the media. "It's my army against their army."
Even though his bids for more testing ultimately didn't pan out, Swearingen's DNA complaints sparked charges in state law in 2015. That year, lawmakers expanded access to testing by removing the requirement that the accused prove biological material - like saliva, sweat or skin cells - exists before testing evidence for it.
But no amount of DNA evidence would be enough to exonerate the convicted killer, prosecutors say.
Visiting Judge J.D. Langley greenlit Friday's decision in the 9th state District Court after Judge Phil Grant recused himself from the case in June 2016 given his prior involvement as a prosecutor during his time in the District Attorney's office.
Even at this late date in legal saga, Montgomery County prosecutor Bill Delmore still anticipates pushback from Swearingen's attorneys.
"I would say I'm cautiously optimistic that if there's an execution date we might finally see the culmination of this case," he said. "But I fully expect the attorneys for Swearingen to request another stay and they've been very tenacious in the past."
Even before the judge's decision, Swearingen's attorney James Rytting said he planned to file a motion opposing the execution date because DNA from a rape kit and the murder weapon had not yet been tested.
"How can you not test a rape kit?" he asked.
Just weeks before Langley issued his decision, Texas executed another convicted killer, Taichin Preyor. The San Antonio man was sentenced to death for killing a woman who sold him drugs. His attorneys filed a flurry of appeals, arguing that former lawyers who worked on the case were "utterly unqualified."
Even with the addition of Swearingen's death date to the calendar, the Lone Star State's use of capital punishment has been in a long-term downward slide.
So far, Huntsville has seen five executions in 2017, with another six - including Swearingen's - on the calendar. Another is already slated for early 2018, just days after all of the state's current supplies of lethal injection drugs expire, according to information obtained through a public records request.
The last time a Montgomery County killer saw the death chamber was in 2012, when Jonathan Green was executed for strangling and sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.
Afterward, he first buried the body, then dug it up and stashed it inside his house, behind a chair.www.m.chron.comHappy Thanksgiving Scumbag