Is Rick Perry Ready to Execute an Innocent Man?
As soon as Rick Perry threw his hat into the 2012 electoral ring, anti–death penalty critics brought up his staggering execution record as governor of Texas: 234 prisoners have been put to death under Perry’s watch, a number of whom had serious innocence claims. Most famous among them is Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 and whose case opened up an investigation that Perry has taken aggressive—and largely successful—measures to squash. But a lesser-known case could also haunt the governor if it reaches his desk: that of Larry Swearingen, convicted and sent to death row for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old college freshman named Melissa Trotter in 1998. Like Willingham, Swearingen was convicted largely on circumstantial evidence and a history of run-ins with the law. But Willingham was convicted based on the inexact science of arson investigations, whose flawed assumptions have been slow to evolve. The scientific evidence in Swearingen’s case, medical experts say, is beyond dispute—and it proves his innocence.
There’s another difference: Swearingen is still alive.
Swearingen was scheduled to die on August 18. But his execution was stayed in late July by the state’s highest criminal court, the notoriously pro-prosecution Court of Criminal Appeals, in order to have the trial court consider new evidence: Histological samples of Trotter’s cardiac, lung and vascular tissue that a growing number of doctors, including well-respected Texas pathologists, say show conclusively that Swearingen could not have killed Trotter.
But is that enough? The Swearingen case has raised questions about the intersection of science and the law: how courts and cops view science, and how decisions are made about what kind of scientific proof is “good enough” to override the type of circumstantial evidence that lends itself to the finality of conviction that Texas courts crave—especially in death penalty cases.
Three days after Trotter disappeared, police arrested Swearingen on outstanding warrants. After her body was found, Swearingen was charged with capital murder—according to the state, Swearingen kidnapped, raped and then murdered Trotter by strangling her with a single leg of pantyhose, cut from a pair, before dumping her body in the forest. Prosecutors sought, and got, the death penalty.
Yet Swearingen maintains his innocence, and his date with death has been postponed three times by the courts. At issue is the science surrounding Trotter’s death, specifically, the science of decomposition. Doctors say the histological evidence shows conclusively that Trotter had not been dead for twenty-five days when her body was found. Samples of Trotter’s tissue—taken almost three weeks after Swearingen was locked up—are consistent with that of a person dead less than a week. Despite doctors’ insistence that Trotter could not have been dead and her body left outside for nearly a month, Texas authorities remain unconvinced that this proves Swearingen’s innocence. Trotter’s parents, too, remain certain that Swearingen killed their daughter. “How long can they examine this evidence?” Sandra Trotter asked in the Houston Chronicle this summer. “From the victims’ rights view, when does this end?”
Courts in Texas have proven on numerous occasions that they do not consider scientific evidence as representing a gold standard for reliability. This has happened, infamously, in DNA cases; DNA science is considered so reliable that courts rely on it in the face of whatever circumstantial or eyewitness evidence would contradict it. In Texas, that has led so far to the exonerations of forty-four men, most convicted of sexual assaults—and more than one who had been sentenced to death.
The doctors in the Swearingen case are adamant that the science in question—histology and gross anatomy, the basic building blocks for modern medicine—cannot be dismissed. If the court rejects this evidence, they argue, they are turning their backs on the basic work done by the state’s forensic pathologists, tasked with determining both cause and manner of death, in thousands of cases each year.
So where does that leave Perry? If it turns out the man is innocent but is executed, Governor Perry looks bad, and if he’s guilty (which doesn’t seem likely) and is executed, President Obama gets the benefit of votes from people who oppose the death penalty.
Even if Perry does stop the execution, death penalty opponents will accuse him of almost executing an innocent man.
An execution could be used to make Governor Perry look tough, or he could grant clemency to court the moderate vote… all his other executions ensure that he has the pro-death penalty vote. If he was going to grant clemency, though, he would have done it by now… and made it a big public relations event.
- Will Rick Perry put an innocent man to death? (cbsnews.com)
- Rick Perry set to carry out one or two more questionable executions as candidate (salon.com)
- politico.com: Rick Perry and the death penalty. A Presidential campaign issue? (criminaljusticesection.wordpress.com)
- Rick Perry’s Big Death Penalty Decision – Mother Jones (news.google.com)
- Rick Perry’s Execution Record Includes The Deaths Of Juveniles And The Mentally Disabled (kaystreet.wordpress.com)
- Rick Perry Deserves Scrutiny For His Role In The Execution Of Cameron Todd Willingham (huffingtonpost.com)
- The devil’s right hand (atlmalcontent.wordpress.com)