Friday, August 19, 2011

'The Science of Injustice'

Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle has a terrific article this week with the same title as this post on the case of Larry Swearingen, who was convicted of capital murder for the death of Melissa Trotter in 1999. Now, a growing litany of experts say he was convicted based on junk science. Here's a notable excerpt from the much longer story:
More than a decade after Trotter's death, a growing number of scientists – including pathologists, forensic anthropologists, and entomologists – agree that Swearingen could not have been responsible for Trotter's death.

Specifically at issue is histological evidence (analysis of cell tissue) that nearly a half-dozen doctors have reviewed and that they say shows conclusively that Trotter had not been dead for 25 days at the time she was found in January 1999. Samples of cardiac, lung, and vascular tissues harvested from Trotter at autopsy, saved in a paraffin block and finally recovered from the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office by Swearingen's attorney in 2009, show tissue that is hardly decomposed at all and is most consistent with a person who has been dead less than a week.

If Trotter was dead less than a week when her body was discovered, Swearingen was in jail when she died and could not have killed her.

"[I]t is categorically impossible, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Ms. Trotter was killed and her body left at that location by ... Swear­ingen, who had been incarcerated ... 23 days before the body was found," Dr. Lloyd White, deputy medical examiner in Tarrant County, wrote in a June 2011 report detailing his most recent examination of the tissue samples.

Yet despite what appears to be clear and convincing medical evidence that Swearingen could not have killed Trotter, neither prosecutors nor the courts have been persuaded that he could be innocent. Swear­ingen's defense has been trying for four years to demonstrate to the courts – the trial court and the CCA as well as federal courts – the import of the new scientific findings. While the CCA has remanded the case to the trial court twice for further hearings, they've ultimately sided with prosecutors, ruling that the forensic evidence isn't convincing enough to outweigh what CCA Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in January 2009 is a "mountain" of circumstantial evidence pointing to Swearingen's guilt.

The case renews questions about the intersection of and tension between science and law – how courts and law enforcement professionals view and understand science, and how decisions are made about what kind of science is "good enough" to be deemed more telling or important than other compelling but decidedly nonscientific evidence. "When you have objective forensic evidence and testimonial evidence – which is subjective – [that testimonial evidence] must be questioned and take a backseat to the objective science," says Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, the chief medical examiner for Galveston County, who after reviewing the Trotter tissue samples also concluded that Trotter was killed within days of being found in the forest, not in early December, and therefore not by Swearingen. "It's not the convenient scenario, not the easy scenario" for the state, he says. "Just because [Swearingen] is the easy and convenient person, all of a sudden, if the science says he didn't do it, doesn't mean that you can ignore the science."

8 comments:

Hook Em Horns said...

The use of DNA goes against the "law enforcement grain" of rounding up the usual suspects and seeing which one they can stick a crime on.

Cops MUST get used to the FACT that they are going to have to investigate, gather evidence and find the suspect that meets the evidentiary criteria not the one that's the most nasty that they can manage to implicate.

What's concerning to me and should be to everyone else is that for all of the convenient suspects locked up in prison who are innocent of the crime they are sitting there for, the real perp is likely still on the streets.

Audrey said...

One thing all the innocence cases have in common...these people never stop fighting to prove their innocence. That tells you a lot right there. Most people in there are just doing their time. It is shocking really when the courts continue to ignore forensics and that they have the power to do so.

Prison Doc said...

This is why I want to vomit when I hear people say, "I really trust our criminal justice system", or "I really have faith in the jury system".

It's like Winston Churchill said about democracy: it's the worst system in the world, except for all the others.

sunray's wench said...

There needs to be an independent body that reviews cases and decides whether to overturn original convictions or decisions. Asking the same Judges (who are elected) and police to change their minds (and in most cases, look at best stupid and at worst, corrupt) is never going to work in favour of fact.

B├╝nzli said...

"[...]if the science says he didn't do it, doesn't mean that you can ignore the science."

Apparently it does mean precisely that!

john said...

It's a big advantage not to be executed, so that the bureaus have time to do their jobs.
Meanwhile, as with the West Memphis Three, by now THE REAL KILLER is either playing golf or in office.
But since those in power cannot admit their incompetence is only exceeded by their arrogance--and don't want to pay restitution; just let 'em plead "guilty," and let 'em out.
But wait, wouldn't that clear the prisons, right after it cleared all legislatures?

L. Roth said...

I agree with John....the plea deal is the rule of choice used in American courts today. It's not only Texas that is guilty of this but Georgia and many other states. It should be a crime and prosecutors who perpetrate this practice ought to pay the same price as the wronged defendant. I'll bet a few months or years in prison for a prosecutor or judge could make the courts practice better law.

Anonymous said...

In the Austin Chronicle's article it lists the names of those who found Trotter's remains as being spelled "Raglind" when in fact the correct spelling is "Ragland". Now I don't know if this misspelling is intentional on the part of those in Montgomery county who would prefer to hide the criminal record of the elder Ragland or is just a mistake by Jordan Smith who authored the article. In any case it would make sense (if justice where to be the true goal) that the elder Ragland submit his DNA so that it could be compared to up-to-now unidentified DNA beneath Trotter's fingernails.

I also find the excuse about Ragland searching for missing guns to be a staggering implausible one.

I can imagine circumstances where if one had kidnapped a woman it would be advantageous to wait to dump the body until law enforcement had announced they had made an arrest in the case.

The indisputable fact that the area where the remains were found had previously been searched by law enforcement, along with his previous conviction for violence should have made Ragland fall under immediate scrutiny. Why it didn't is a question that only Dan Norris of the MCSO who investigated the case can explain. After all, law enforcement certainly wouldn't want to dig too far and turn up evidence that would leave them with the appearance of incompetence as careers are on the line.