CONROE — The evidentiary hearing of convicted killer Larry Ray Swearingen began on Monday in the 9th District Court of Montgomery County Judge Fred Edwards. Prosecutor Warren Diepraam with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office left the first day’s proceedings confident that the state would prevail.
On July 11, 2000, Swearingen was sentenced to death for the 1998 kidnapping, sexual assault and capital murder of 19-year-old college student Melissa Trotter of Montgomery. Since then, Swearingen has dodged three execution dates, set for January 2007, January 2009 and August 2011 and is again in court hoping his defense team can get him a new trial.
Diepraam said because the hearings are a writ of habeas corpus, the defense is presenting their case first.
On Monday, the defense presented only one witness, Dr. Lee Goff (Forensic Entomologist, Hawaii), and Diepraam did not feel the expert helped the Swearingen defense.
“Dr. Goff testified that he has no opinions on this case, however, as prosecutors we were pleased with the cross examination,” Diepraam said. “Dr. Goff reviewed some of the information we provided him and basically stated that the defense’s next experts have got it all wrong.”
“The defense is relying on two forensic pathologists to say that Melissa Trotter had only been dead two days,” he said. “However, on cross examination, the defense expert today said that could not be possible with the insect evidence he has seen on the case, so the defense first witness has now attacked their second and third witnesses in reference to credibility.”
In addition to forensic pathologists, an anthropologist will testify for the defense later in week. Next Monday, the state will have its turn to present witnesses.
“We are bringing in several highly respected experts from around country,” Diepraam said. “Dr. Neil Haskell (Forensic Entomology Investigations, Indiana) will be testifying for the state.”
Haskell has been a witness in several high profile cases including the Caley Anthony case. The state will also call Dr. Werner Spitz (Forensic Pathology and Toxicology, Michigan) who testified in the infamous West Memphis Three hearings, and Dr. Sibyl Bucheli (Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas) who has done extensive research into human decomposition.
“The defense in this case has never had a consistent theory, nor have they ever been able to get their science to match up with the facts that were elicited at trial,” Diepraam said. “Our experts have been consistent from get-go; they agreed with each other, and their opinions happen to match up with the facts of the case that were introduced in trial.”
The veteran prosecutor said the state does not believe there is “any credibility to the defense witnesses” or the defense theory that Trotter was dead for only two days when she was discovered.
“The scientific evidence is going to show that she was killed on or about December 8, 1998,” Diepraam said. “That’s what the facts showed at trial and that’s what they’re going to show this week.”
According to Diepraam, the defense cannot raise any new claims after this one unless there is new evidence, and the state does not believe any new evidence exists.
“We’ve turned over every single item of evidence the defense has requested,” he said. “We’ve given them unprecedented access to everything that we have in our entire file, all of our evidence, all of our data, and all of our experts.”
When the hearing concludes, Judge Edwards will make his findings of fact and conclusions of law. Then the case will go to the Court of Criminal Appeals and they will decide whether Swearingen will get a new trial. Diepraam does not expect that to happen.
“This is Mr. Swearingen’s 6th writ,” Diepraam said. “He has gone through many, many, appeals – we hope that this will be the final writ that he goes through before the judge sets an execution date.”