HUNTSVILLE—For two decades, Larry Ray Swearingen told anyone who would listen that he did not kill Melissa Trotter. He knew her, he said — but wasn’t the one who raped and strangled the 19-year-old college student before dumping her body among the trees of the Sam Houston National Forest.

But on Wednesday night, the courts all turned down his final claims and the 48-year-old Montgomery County man met his end on the gurney in Huntsville. He took his final breath at 6:47 p.m., becoming the fourth man executed this year in the Lone Star State.

“Lord forgive ’em,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Eyes closed, he began narrating his own death: “I can hear it going through the vein — I can taste it,” he said, before describing a burning in his right arm.

“I don’t feel anything in the left,” he added. At 6:35, he began snoring. Twelve minutes later, he died.

In the past, he’d always managed to eke out last-minute stays before each of his last five scheduled death dates - and for months he was skeptical that the Aug. 21 execution could really come to pass.

“I don’t believe you’re going to kill me,” he told the Houston Chronicle in May, likening the case against him to a house of cards. “I believe I will pull that one single card and it’s gonna come tumbling down.”

But just before 6 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court denied his final appeal and Swearingen’s hope for reprieve faded.

The condemned man’s lawyers repeatedly decried the case as a wrongful conviction built on “junk science” and circumstantial evidence that they say left behind unanswered questions about everything from the expert testimony to cellphone forensics.

“They may put Larry Swearingen under,” said Houston-based attorney James Rytting said before the execution. “But his case is not going to die.”

Still, Montgomery County prosecutors were confident in their conviction and the “mountain” of evidence against him - as was Sandy Trotter, the slain teen’s mother. For her, there was never a doubt who did it.

“There are no winners in this,” she said Tuesday. “We’ll never have Melissa back.”

After trudging out of the death chamber, she and her family stood outside the prison, apparently holding back tears as the prison spokesman read a statement on their behalf, offering praise to God and thanking their supporters.

Prosecutor Kelly Blackburn celebrated an end 19 years in the making.

“Larry Swearingen needs to be removed from the annals of history as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “A bad man got what he deserved tonight.”

A ‘typical 19-year-old’

In December of 1998, Melissa Trotter was a student at Montgomery College, where she hoped to hone her foreign language skills and eventually pursue a career in business. Before that she’d taught at vacation Bible school and grown into a “typical 19-year-old,” according to her mother.

She met Swearingen, eight years her senior, around town — “here and there,” by his account. They struck up a casual relationship.

“The evidence really did establish the friendship,” Swearingen said, “and then they turned it into murder to support their conviction.”

The two were spotted together in the college library on Dec. 8, 1998 - the day the teen disappeared. A biology teacher saw Trotter leaving campus with a man, but Swearingen has maintained it wasn’t him. And, though forensic evidence later showed the teen had been in his car, Swearingen said it wasn’t necessarily that day.

During trial, the former electrician’s wife testified that she came home that evening to find their trailer a mess. In the middle of it all were Trotter’s lighter and a pack of her brand of cigarettes. The unexpected disarray could have been the sign of a struggle, but Swearingen chalked it up to a break-in, and later filed a police report saying his home had been burgled while he was gone.

But aside from the cigarettes and the chaos, authorities eventually found half a pair of pantyhose, which state experts later said matched the hosiery wrapped around Trotter’s neck. Hunters only found her decomposing body in the woods weeks later, but by that time authorities in Galveston had already arrested Swearingen for outstanding traffic tickets.

In the summer of 2000, he was sentenced to death.

‘Could they whack me? Absolutely.’

Following his conviction, Swearingen’s legal team strove to dismantle the case against him, which was always circumstantial: There was never any biological evidence tying Swearingen to the slaying.

And the cell phone forensics, his lawyers said, didn’t really show that he made a call while driving back from the forest. The pantyhose weren’t really a definitive match, they argued, and the timeline of Trotter’s death could have been off. Swearingen may have already been in jail by the time the teen died, his lawyers said.

For years, the defense team also pushed for additional DNA testing in the case. In 2017, attorneys on both sides finally came to an agreement on what evidence to test: cigarette butts from the woods, hair and some of the teen’s clothes.

But ultimately the testing made no difference, since most of the material didn’t come back positive for any male DNA at all, and the cigarette butts only matched the hunters who found her body.

Earlier this year, a Montgomery County court signed off on another execution date — Swearingen’s sixth since his conviction.

“I refuse to accept this as my fate,” he told Chronicle afterward. “Could they whack me? Absolutely. If they do, they do - but I’m not going to crawl on my knees, I’m not going to grovel.”

In the final weeks, he filed appeals hoping to poke holes in the state’s testimony about the blood flecks found under Trotter’s fingernails. The crime lab determined years ago that the blood wasn’t Swearingen’s, a fact that could have helped point to another suspect. But an expert at trial explained that away, saying it could be contamination, thus negating its potentially exculpatory value.

This year, the crime lab wrote a pair of letters clarifying that their expert should not have been so certain about the pantyhose match or the possibility of contamination regarding the blood flecks, admissions Rytting viewed as damaging to the state’s case. But those claims did not impress the prosecution, or the courts that turned down his appeals.

“Anyone at this point in this process who believes that Mr. Swearingen is innocent is either delusional or is incapable of reading,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon. “No court who has reviewed his frivolous claims has seriously questioned his guilt.”

A death row plot

It’s not just the doggedness of Swearingen’s legal team — which also includes Innocence Project of New York attorney Bryce Benjet — that helped win him stays in the past. Two years ago, it was a clerical error that let him avoid death, after the Montgomery County District Clerk’s Office sent the execution order to the wrong place.

The paperwork snafu came just after investigators uncovered a bizarre death row confession plot, when Swearingen and another prisoner allegedly hatched a plan to cast doubt on his conviction. In 2017 — weeks before both men were scheduled to die - “Tourniquet Killer” Anthony Shore came forward claiming that Swearingen had asked him to make a last-minute confession falsely admitting to Trotter’s slaying.

Investigators even found a hand-drawn map in Shore’s cell, showing the supposed location of more evidence in the 1998 case. The find kicked off a new hunt for 20-year-old evidence, but after scouring a lake bottom authorities came up empty-handed.

Ultimately, Shore told investigators he’d only agreed to the false confession to get his friend off — not because he’d actually committed the crime. Still, the twist threatened to muddy the waters in both cases and prompted officials to push back Shore’s execution, though it was the clerical error that instead won Swearingen a stay that fall.

‘I want him to know I’m there’

For two decades, Sandy Trotter waited for this day. She was convinced of Swearingen’s guilt, not swayed by his attorneys’ claims anymore than the courts or the jurors.

“The overwhelming evidence is not just a coincidence,” she said. “There was a trial; he was found guilty, and they agreed on a sentence.”

She just had no idea the whole process could take so long, or lead to so many last-minute stays.

Before the execution, Sandy said she planned to look the man convicted of killing her daughter in the eye as he lay on the gurney.

“I hope he’s not too sedated,” she said. “I want him to know I’m there.”

Surely, the dying man must have known — but he kept his eyes screwed shut the entire time.

<a href="mailto:keri.blakinger@chron.com">keri.blakinger@chron.com</a>