Bllomberg posts, "High Court Won’t Hear Death Row Inmate’s Claim of Innocence," by Bob Drummond. It's via Business Week.
The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to consider stopping the execution of Larry Ray Swearingen, a Texas death row inmate who says newly uncovered evidence proves his innocence.
Swearingen’s lawyers had asked the high court to decide for the first time whether executing an innocent person constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.
Lower federal courts declined to intervene in Swearingen’s case in part because, as the law now stands, even uncontested scientific proof of innocence isn’t a valid reason for a federal judge to stop an execution.
Swearingen’s case involves rules for habeas corpus petitions, which let federal judges intervene in criminal cases if there is reason to believe an inmate’s rights have been violated.
In a 1993 Supreme Court decision, seven justices said they at least presumed, for argument’s sake, that the Constitution prohibits putting innocent people to death. The high court, however, has never turned that hypothetical discussion into a concrete rule of law.
The court ruled in 1993’s Herrera v. Collins decision that new evidence, by itself, says nothing about whether a defendant’s rights were respected during an earlier investigation and trial. An inmate needs additional evidence of a separate constitutional violation to warrant a federal court’s involvement, the high court ruled.
“Federal habeas courts do not sit to correct errors of fact, but to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution,” then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for a 6-3 majority. “Claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the underlying state criminal proceeding.”
Rehnquist acknowledged the stakes would be keenest in death penalty cases.
“We may assume, for the sake of argument,” he wrote, “that in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional, and warrant federal habeas relief if there were no state avenue open to process such a claim.”
Even then, the court said, the standard for assessing new evidence would “be extraordinarily high.”
More onthe Supreme Court's 1993 ruling in Herrea v. Collins, via Oyez.
A state court hearing on Swearingen's case got underway yesterday. "Condemned killer Swearingen back in court," is Renée C. Lee's Houston Chronicle report.
After receiving his third stay of execution last year, condemned killer Larry Swearingen is back in court trying to gain a new trial and prove his innocence.
An expert entomologist testified for the defense Monday that insect evidence used in Swearingen's murder trial was improperly collected and stored, making it impossible to correctly estimate the time of death of the 19-year-old victim, Melissa Trotter.
The testimony came during a hearing ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after it granted Swearingen a reprieve on July 28. He was set to die by lethal injection on Aug. 18.
State District Judge Fred Edwards must review new evidence dealing with heart and liver tissue and a due process violation. Edwards will submit his findings to the appeals court, which will decide if Swearingen should receive a new trial.
Jordan Smith filed a preview of the hearing, "Dissecting the Science of Death," for the Austin Chronicle.
The question of whether the science of death and decomposition can prove that Larry Swearingen, now on death row, was not responsible for the 1998 kidnapping and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, will be taken up in district court in Montgomery County starting Feb. 27.
Trotter disappeared on Dec. 8, 1998. It was finals week at Montgomery College where she was a student; she attended a science class review and did some work on a computer in the college's library, then she disappeared. Three days later, Swearingen was arrested on outstanding warrants; he's been behind bars ever since. Although the portion of the Sam Houston National Forest where she was ultimately found had been searched several times, by both law enforcement and others, her body was not discovered until Jan. 2, 1999. Swearingen was subsequently charged and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die.
At issue, however, is whether science actually proves Swearingen's innocence. According to Swearingen's defense attorney James Rytting and a bevy of medical experts – including a number of well-respected Texas medical examiners – it is impossible for Trotter to have been dead for more than a few days when her body was found. And if she had been dead for less than a week, Swearingen could not have been the killer because he was already in jail. Specifically at question is whether Trotter's body displayed the kind of decomposition expected of a body left outside for several weeks in the forest in December. According to evidence first provided to the defense in 2009, the answer is no; histological samples of Trotter's heart, lung, and vascular tissue is more consistent with a person dead mere days before she was found.