CW: Death penalty, sexual assault, true crime.
“Most people approve of capital punishment, but most wouldn’t do the hangman’s job.” – George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.
The death penalty remains one of the most divisive and polarising topics of crime and punishment. It is the fastest argument starter at parties, a topic which anyone will have an opinion on, and a topic that will always be raised in any comments section or editorial.
Lady Justice, a woman blindfolded holding scales of fairness in one hand and holding a sword of punishment on the other, is often imagined as someone ready to extract vengeance. But what happens when the scales are gone? And when punishment prevails?
The crux of the arguments in support of the death penalty are focussed on deterrence, closure and that by committing a crime, the accused has relinquished their rights. Since WWII, nations all over the world began adopting an abolitionist stance towards the death penalty. This coincides with moves which affirmed a yearning for peace and the recognition of human dignity with the establishment of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example.
Aims of peace were delayed and overtaken by aims of security- not always synonymous with human rights. Previously abolitionist states have experienced sudden surges of populist messages of death to criminals. For example, this has been seen in the Philippines through vigilantism in a ‘drug war’ and in Sri Lanka with the reinstatement of the death penalty this year. The terrifying prospect of this rhetoric incriminating innocent people has already become a consequence.
This is the story of Larry Swearingen.
Larry’s case first came to my attention through an Amnesty International rapid response email: “Man with claims of innocence faces imminent execution”.
As an avid reader and fan of true crime stories and documentaries, my curiosity piqued as to the circumstances of the crime and Larry’s conviction. Sometimes my Saturdays were spent examining evidence of unexplained cases and going over theories with friends- but this case was different. Forensic experts sided to Larry’s innocence and circumstantial evidence seemed exploited by a strong conviction to execute.
The Case: Disappearance of 19 year old student, Melissa Trotter- later found dead in a forest area. Melissa had been strangled to death with a pantyhose leg. Larry Swearingen was a local electrician and a friend of Melissa’s.
The Evidence: Fibre Analysis: The ‘Smoking Gun’ evidence was the stocking found on Melissa’s neck. A similar matching stocking leg was found at Larry’s home but the type of fabric was different and did not match the stocking at the crime scene. No DNA match: Blood under Melissa’s fingernails and DNA samples found on her did not match Larry’s DNA. Timing issues: Larry was arrested for another offence before the body was found which may suggest that given the state of decomposition of Melissa’s body, Larry may not have buried Melissa if he was in police custody at the time.
There are contradictory eyewitness accounts of whether or not Larry spoke to Melissa on the day of her disappearance. Some state that Melissa was at university, while Larry was at home, while others state that they were in a relationship. Before Melissa’s disappearance, associates report that Melissa was receiving threatening and violent calls from a fellow co-worker at a call centre. The calls were attributed as coming from ‘Larry’, but this has been heavily disputed by associates of Melissa and Larry who claim that Melissa was being stalked by someone else.
Other facts: The prosecution relied on eyewitness accounts (often unreliable) and the stocking leg for their main arguments. All of Larry’s appeals failed.
Social Context: The murder verdict was decided by a jury in Texas. Texas, as of 2013, is the state which has executed the most people since 1976, according to Mic.com. The state is known for a punitive attitude towards criminal justice, which may have influenced the culture of the jury, regardless of the facts at hand. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, anyone?
Larry’s story had been picked up by international news outlets and forensics experts; it was no longer reasonable doubt, but overwhelming doubt as to whether Larry really was Melissa’s killer. Larry was later a client of the Innocence Project and Amnesty International.
In spite of all their best efforts, Larry was executed on the 22nd August, 2019. Larry’s case was a sad reminder of what rhetoric can accumulate to kill.
It is important to think critically about matters of crime and punishment. With such high stakes of life and liberty, at the very least, the criminal justice system should be reputable and scrupulous. But if carelessness and commitment to violence are the focal points, so long as you are a suspect, you are fair game.