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TX: The most guilty person in the history of Montgomery
Thu Jun 27, 2013 16:38

The most guilty person in the history of Montgomery County’
Published in the Dublin Review in June 2013.

From George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, the most direct route to the Allan B. Polunsky Unit takes you along the back roads of San Jacinto and Polk counties, through dirt-poor trailerland, past campgrounds lined with nominally mobile homes. Every other house looks like it is falling apart, spilling its contents into the yard. Hand-painted signs announce ‘we have minnows’ and offer catfish, live or dressed.

Almost three hundred men convicted of capital crimes in the state of Texas are incarcerated at the prison. For the past thirteen years, since being found guilty of murdering a young woman called Melissa Trotter, Larry Swearingen has been kept in solitary confinement, in a eight-by-twelve-foot cell with a slit of a window above head height. If he stands on his bed, grass and barbed wire are all he can see. Twice a week, he is escorted to the prison yard, alone, to pass two hours under the sky. Three times a week, he spends two hours in a central recreation room, where he can play chess, dominoes or Scrabble with other prisoners, through the bars of their cells.

I interviewed Swearingen for the first time in February 2012. A guard brought him in to the visiting area with his hands cuffed behind his back, removed the cuffs and locked him in a cubicle with a steel cage that resembled the stall of an old-fashioned fairground ride. In the penultimate booth, a prisoner was describing a gunfight for a true crimes TV special, but otherwise, the room was empty.

Swearingen is hirsute and heavyset, with a shaved head. In his wire-rimmed, oval glasses and white prison scrubs, he looked like a hospital orderly about to begin his shift. I was struck by how calm he was, even as he complained about being vilified and locked up for something he insists he didn’t do. ‘The way I look at it, I’m a POW of Texas,’ he said. ‘It’s my army against their army. Anything other and I’d lose my mind in here.’

In his time on death row, two hundred and seventy-two of his fellow prisoners have been executed, eighty-two have had their sentences commuted to life or long jail terms, seventeen have died of natural causes and seven have committed suicide. Only three have been released after having their convictions overturned.

Although prisoners are moved to a different cell every six months to prevent them from forming attachments or nursing grudges, Swearingen has made some friends over the years, including Roy Pippin and Cary Kerr, both of whom protested their innocence to the end. Pippin set a fire in his cell on the day of his execution and was strapped to the stretcher shouting ‘Go ahead warden, murder me. Take me home, Jesus.’

‘I’ve tried not to get close to anyone since then, to avoid the hurt that comes with watching men you know walk to their death and not being able to do anything about it,’ Swearingen told me. The last time his own execution date was set, four years ago, he had written his last statement, packed up his few belongings and was on his way out of the prison when the stay was granted.

In September 2011, journalists from all over the world camped outside a prison in Jackson, Georgia, alongside people protesting that an innocent man was about to be killed by the state. Their reports noted that no forensic evidence against Troy Davis was presented at trial and that seven of the nine eyewitnesses who testified for the prosecution had since changed their stories.

Davis was executed, but many abolitionists believed that the capital punishment debate in the United States had turned a corner. For the first time in the modern era, there were fewer than a hundred executions in a calendar year. Illinois became the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty, Oregon announced a moratorium on executions and other states were running short of the drugs used in lethal injections, after manufacturers withdrew them from sale.

Even so, in the annual Gallup poll, 61% of respondents said they were in favour of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. ‘The truth is that even in the face of this abolitionist drumbeat, to shame us out of supporting the death penalty and to over-emphasise the remote possibility of executing an innocent person, support is remarkably resilient,’ Professor Robert Blecker of New York Law School told me, adding that ‘I urge as a retributivist that we reserve it only for the worst of the worst: the rapist-murderers, the serial killers, the hit men, the depraved, indifferent, callous, cold killers. That person deserves to die.’

In the past forty years, one hundred and forty-two people convicted of capital crimes in the United States have been freed from death row after being exonerated (eleven of the men remained in prison on unrelated charges) meaning they were pardoned, the charges against them were dismissed, or they were acquitted at retrial.

The Innocence Project, an organisation that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions in capital cases, put me in touch with James Rytting, a veteran defence lawyer in Texas. He assured me that in the case of Larry Swearingen, the state had got the wrong man, and forensic science could prove it.

In December 1998, nineteen-year-old Melissa Trotter was studying for her first-year finals at Montgomery College in Conroe, about thirty miles north of the centre of Houston.

  • Swearingen gets partial win over document review By Howard Roden | Posted: Friday, March 1, 2013 11:32 pm The attorney for Larry Ray Swearingen was in Conroe Friday requesting access to almost all of ... more
      • Swearingen requests hearing on DNA testing; DA’s office focused on execution date Posted: Saturday, March 15, 2014 11:07 pm By Howard Roden Attorneys for convicted killer Larry Ray Swearingen filed... more
        • Swearingen defense requests more DNA tests By Brandon K. Scott | Posted 3 hours ago Attorneys for Larry Swearingen filed an amended motion last week to the 9th state District Court in Montgomery... more
          • Court Again Denies DNA Tests in Death Row Case • by Johnathan Silver - The Texas Tribune • Oct. 28, 2015 Death row inmate Larry Swearingen during an interview at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston,... more
            • Larry Swearingen is scheduled to be executed by Texas on November 16,2017 Texas – former Gov. Rick Perry and his successor Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas death penalty enthusiasts– don’t lose sleep over... more
              • The legal reason for denial of DNA testing has always been that evidence of guilt is so overwhelming that there is no reason for DNA testing. This is a long standing legal reason to reject appellate... more
                • Lawyers agree to DNA testing in Swearingen's death row case By Keri... more
                  • SwearingenDudley Sharp, Sat Nov 4 08:37
                    Petra: One of the strangest legal back and forths, ever, 19 years in the making.
        • Hello Dudley long time no see hope your keeping well? I have question for you Hun I don't no much about this case I'm going over trial now. Do you think he's guilty?. What I've read so far I think he ... more
          • Sweearingen's guiltDudley Sharp, Fri Feb 7 17:21
            Kitten" The "mountain of evidence" for his guilt is the language from the appellate judges. Stick to the appellate record and not the usual BS from anti death penalty folks, eg Troy Davis.
    • TX: The most guilty person in the history of Montgomery — Petra., Thu Jun 27 16:38
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