Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Texas death row inmate sues state's highest criminal court over DNA testing

Larry Swearingen
Larry Swearingen
Inmate says Court of Criminal Appeals has deprived him of the right to prove his innocence.

A death row inmate has sued the state's highest criminal court and its 9 judges, arguing that they have deprived him of the opportunity to prove his innocence.

Lawyers for death row inmate Larry Swearingen argue that the Court of Criminal Appeals adopted a flawed and unconstitutional interpretation of a state law intended to allow inmates to seek DNA tests, particularly if modern testing techniques were not available when they were convicted.

In a federal lawsuit filed Friday and served on the Texas court Monday, Swearingen asked U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin to rule that the Texas court violated his constitutional rights by needlessly restricting his access to DNA tests.

The lawsuit also asked Yeakel to order DNA testing on several items of crime scene evidence, arguing that the results will show that somebody else strangled Melissa Trotter in 1998. The 19-year-old college student's body was discovered one month later in a national forest near Conroe in East Texas.

The items Swearingen, 45, wants tested include the torn pantyhose used to strangle Trotter, her clothes, a rape kit and 4 cigarette butts found near her body.

The clothing in particular should still carry skin cells that could identify the killer, said Bryce Benjet, a lawyer with the Innocence Project in New York who filed Swearingen's lawsuit.

"Testing can both determine whether an innocent man is in prison and identify the real rapist and murderer, who may still be at large," Benjet said in the lawsuit.

Montgomery County prosecutors have opposed Swearingen's requests for further testing over the past decade, and the Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed with them multiple times, most recently in October 2015, citing a "mountain" of evidence indicating Swearingen's guilt - including a pantyhose fragment found at Swearingen's home that matched the portion missing from the hose used to strangle Trotter.

In light of the evidence, the appeals court said in an 8-1 ruling, Swearingen was not entitled to additional testing based on a hypothetical hope that it would identify another suspect whose DNA profile could be found on a national crime registry.

"(That) makes it hard to imagine a case in which we would not grant DNA testing," Judge Michael Keasler wrote for the majority. "We believe that had the Legislature meant to so drastically lower the barrier for testing, they would have said so explicitly."

In the lawsuit, however, Benjet said the items Swearingen wants checked are today routinely tested for DNA before trial. In fact, changes to state law would now require them to be tested before seeking the death penalty, he said.

"That should entitle him to DNA testing," Benjet told the American-Statesman.

Source: Austin American-Statesman, November 1, 2016

Death Row Inmate Sues Texas for DNA Tests

With help from The Innocence Project, death row inmate Larry Ray Swearingen claims that DNA tests could prove his innocence of a 1998 murder, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has unconstitutionally denied him the opportunity to present the evidence.

Swearingen sued the nine judges on the state's highest criminal appeals court on Oct. 28 in Federal Court, challenging the appellate court's interpretation of the criminal code, and demanding the release of evidence for DNA testing.

"It's not a casual thing to bring a federal civil rights action, but the denial of DNA testing in a death penalty case is really something that is pretty extraordinary," said Bryce Benjet, an attorney with The Innocence Project of New York City.

"We think it is appropriate for a federal judge to step in and enforce the Constitution," Benjet said in an interview.

Swearingen was convicted of the 1998 murder of Melissa Trotter, of Willis, Texas, a 19-year-old freshman at Lone Star Community College-Montgomery. She was found in the Sam Houston National Forest, strangled to death by a pair of pantyhose.

The state presented evidence at trial that Swearingen and Trotter had been seen leaving campus together the day she disappeared. Prosecutors said Swearingen kidnapped, raped, and murdered her after she refused his sexual advances.

Swearingen's attorneys say in the new lawsuit that he was convicted "largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence."

Swearingen has always maintained his innocence and has filed several motions to secure DNA testing under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires post-conviction DNA testing if such evidence would more than likely have resulted in a not-guilty verdict.

His first 2 motions were unsuccessful, but the Montgomery County Court granted 2 subsequent motions for DNA testing, which the court of appeals reversed.

As those motions wended through the courts, the Texas Legislature made several amendments to the DNA testing statute in the criminal code. The Legislature cited Swearingen's case as the impetus for these changes, which included expanding the definition of what "biological material" could be tested and broadening the statute to require testing of evidence that has "a reasonable likelihood of containing biological material."

"His case was the subject of legislative testimony, yet still, when it gets back to the Court of Criminal Appeals, they interpret the statute in a way that denies him testing," Benjet said.

The 28-page lawsuit against the Court of Criminal Appeals states that Swearingen's repeated efforts to obtain DNA testing have been "thwarted" by the appellate court's "unreasonably narrow" interpretation of the criminal code, and that its interpretation "ignores the most powerful aspects of DNA testing and sets a bar that cannot be satisfied in most cases."

This alone has denied him due process, his attorneys say, and "unconstitutionally deprived [him] access to the courts" to obtain other remedies which could prove his innocence.

Swearingen seeks declaratory relief that the appeals court's interpretation of the code is unconstitutional.

He also sued the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Montgomery District [Court] Clerk and the Montgomery County Sheriff, to force release of evidence for testing, including the murder weapon, the rape kit, the victim's clothing and cigarette butts found near her body.

Montgomery County prosecutor Bill Delmore told the Houston Chronicle last year that "a lot" of DNA testing had been done in Swearingen's case, and that Swearingen's DNA profile was matched to a hair on a pantyhose fragment found in his trailer and 2 hairs found in Swearingen's truck were matched to Trotter.

"We're very confident that we have the right guy," Delmore told the Chronicle article in June 2015. "We've executed on far less."

But Swearingen's attorneys call the pantyhose evidence found in Swearingen's trailer "troubling," as the pantyhose had not been found during the first 2 searches of the trailer. Also, "serious doubts have been raised about the reliability" of the tear line analysis that matched the fragment to the pantyhose found tied around Trotter's neck, according to the complaint.

The only pre-trial DNA testing that revealed a male donor, taken from fingernail scrapings, excluded Swearingen, and the state offered no "plausible" explanation for the presence of someone else's DNA underneath Trotter's fingernails, his attorneys say in the complaint.

They say the state speculated that "perhaps blood from an officer present during the autopsy who may have cut himself while shaving hours before inexplicably worked its way under the victim's fingernails," or that blood circulating through the morgue's air-conditioning system "somehow landed in the scrapings from Mr. Trotter's fingernails."

Or, the state argued, perhaps blood from an investigator was blown under the fingernails "by the whir of helicopters in the search."

The Innocence Project has been handling the constitutionality of Texas' DNA-testing statute. Philip Hilder and James Rytting of Houston-based Hilder & Associates have taken on other aspects of the case.

Benjet said there is "some pretty alarming" forensic evidence that makes some experts think it would have been "impossible" for Swearingen to have committed the murder.

"We've seen time and time again that the criminal justice system, like most government endeavors, is not perfect," Benjet said. "And when we have science that can conclusively determine guilt or innocence, it's really hard to believe that people wouldn't want that applied in death penalty cases."

Swearingen's 5th execution date, set for March this year, was delayed by appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant writ of certiorari on Oct. 3. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the writ without comment on Oct. 12. The setting of his 6th execution date is imminent.

Source: Courthouse News, November 2, 2016

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