Texas to execute man convicted of abducting, strangling college student

FILE PHOTO: Death-row inmate Larry Swearingen is shown in this photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S., provided August 20, 2019. Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A man who has maintained his innocence and whose lawyers have argued the state ignored key evidence that would exonerate him is scheduled to be put to death in Texas on Wednesday for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old college student.

Larry Swearingen, 48, who faced five previous execution dates over the past two decades, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at the state’s death chamber in Huntsville.

A jury convicted and sentenced Swearingen to die in 2000 for the murder of Melissa Trotter, who disappeared on Dec. 8, 1998. Trotter was found dead 25 days later in a densely wooded area in the Sam Houston National Forest with a piece of pantyhose around her neck.

During Swearingen’s trial, prosecutors laid out a case based on witness testimony, cellphone records and evidence found in his house and truck that they said linked him to her death.

Prosecutors said that on the day Trotter went missing, a witness saw her with a man leaving the Lone Star College–Montgomery library, in The Woodlands, Texas, where she attended school. The Woodlands is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Houston.

They also said that cellphone records showed Swearingen traveled from his home two hours later to Sam Houston National Forest, where Trotter’s body was found.

Investigators collected hair and fibers belonging to Trotter from Swearingen’s home and truck. In his house, they also discovered her lighter, cigarettes and pantyhose, half of which was found wrapped around her neck when her body was found, according to court documents.

Swearingen was arrested three days after Trotter went missing. In jail, he tried to write a letter in Spanish in which he claimed to be someone else who had knowledge of the murder. In the letter, Swearingen corroborated details of the evidence in the case, court documents showed.

He also told a cellmate that he committed capital murder and planned to escape the death penalty, according to court documents.

Swearingen has professed his innocence for the past two decades. In a series of appeals that have wound through Texas and federal courts, his lawyers have challenged the state’s DNA testing in the case and had experts testify that the decomposition of Trotter’s body showed it was dumped in the woods after Swearingen was in custody.

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Swearingen’s request for clemency.

Swearingen would be the 12th inmate executed in the United States and the fourth in Texas in 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Canada says safety of Pakistani woman in blasphemy case a ‘priority’

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada urged Pakistan on Tuesday to ensure the well-being of a Pakistani Christian woman whose life is in danger after having been acquitted in the South Asian country last month of blasphemy charges against Islam, a ruling that sparked mass protests.

The case of Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan before being released, has outraged Christians worldwide. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for help to Britain, Canada, Italy and the United States, and so far, Italy has said it would assist her.

“It’s a very important issue, a central priority for our government,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of Bibi’s case after meeting her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Montreal.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbors said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.

“Canada calls on Pakistan to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family,” Freeland said. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can” and is “extremely engaged in this issue,” Freeland said.

Islamists shut down roads in major cities in Pakistan during three days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have threatened to escalate the protests if she is permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands earlier this week because of fears for the safety of his family.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman

By Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan suspended mobile phone networks in major cities on Friday and many schools were closed as Islamist groups protested for a third day against the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

The Supreme Court decision enraged hardline Islamists, in particular, members of a group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), who have taken to the streets to call for the death of the judges who made the decision and the ouster of the government.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said.

The spokesman for the military said the armed forces hoped the “matter is resolved without the disruption of peace”.

“Both sides should talk amongst themselves, and we should not reach the stage where this matter comes under the ambit of the armed forces,” he told state-run PTV channel.

On Friday, telephone networks were down in the capital, Islamabad, and the eastern city of Lahore, where pockets of TLP protesters blocked main roads.

“All services have been shut down by the government,” said a customer service representative at one of Pakistan’s main mobile phone companies, while declining to elaborate.

Authorities in Pakistan often shut down mobile phone networks in the hope of distrusting the organization of protests.

Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed.

In the commercial hub of Karachi in the south, normally bustling markets were shuttered.

A Reuters photographer saw about 100 protesters using stones, pieces of wood and motor-bikes to create a barricade across one main road.

Bibi’s whereabouts were not known on Friday. Her family has been in hiding this week.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Doctor tells U.S. court drug not suitable for Arkansas executions

Inmates Bruce Ward(top row L to R), Don Davis, Ledell Lee, Stacy Johnson, Jack Jones (bottom row L to R), Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason Mcgehee are shown in these booking photo provided March 21, 2017

By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) – A surgeon told a federal court in Arkansas on Wednesday that a sedative the state plans to use in its lethal injection mix is not suitable for surgery and should be prohibited when Arkansas holds an unprecedented series of executions later this month.

Arkansas plans to kill eight prisoners in dual executions over 11 days from April 17, although a federal judge has halted one execution. Death penalty opponents have said the rushed schedule is reckless and increases the chance of errors.

The European Union on Wednesday called on Arkansas to commute the death sentences.

The convicted murderers scheduled to die have asked U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker in Little Rock to halt their executions, saying the state’s rush to the death chamber was unconstitutional. Baker set a Thursday deadline for evidence.

Lawyers for Arkansas, which has not had an execution in 12 years, have told the court that the drug in question, midazolam, has been used in executions in other states and its lethal injection protocols pass constitutional muster.

Jonathan Groner, a professor at Ohio State University’s medical school and a specialist in pediatrics and trauma, testified that he has never used midazolam as the primary anesthetic in thousands of operations he has performed.

“It would be malpractice for me to do an appendectomy using midazolam as an anesthetic,” he said. He was a witness for the inmates and on cross examination said he was a death penalty opponent.

When the number of executions was rising in the late 1990s, several states held double and even triple executions on the same day, including Arkansas.

At that time, a powerful sedative was part of the mix but since then, major pharmaceutical companies have banned sales to states for executions. This caused a scramble for new mixes, including combinations with midazolam, which has been used in flawed executions in states including Oklahoma and Arizona where witnesses said inmates writhed in pain on death chamber gurneys.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, set the schedule, saying the state’s midazolam supply expires at the end of April and it was in the interest of justice to hold as many executions as possible while Arkansas has the difficult-to-obtain drug.

Separately, Ohio has asked the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to re-consider a decision last week from a three-judge panel from that court blocking the state’s lethal injection process, the attorney general’s office said.

(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Kim Palkmer in Cleveland; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Toni Reinhold)

Charleston church shooter pleads guilty to state murder counts

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – The white supremacist sentenced to death in federal court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church in South Carolina pleaded guilty to separate state murder charges on Monday.

Dylann Roof, 23, was charged in state court with murdering nine African-American parishioners as they closed their eyes in prayer at a Bible study session.

Roof agreed to plead guilty in state court under a deal with prosecutors after being convicted of 33 federal crimes, including hate crimes and obstruction of religion resulting in death. In January, a jury found he deserved the death penalty.

Pleading guilty to the state charges allows for Roof’s transfer to death row and spares survivors and relatives of the victims a second round of courtroom testimony detailing his rampage on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

He will receive a sentence of life in prison on the state charges, which include attempted murder of three survivors of the shooting, solicitor Scarlett Wilson said last month. State prosecutors abandoned efforts to seek a second death penalty.

Roof was ordered into the custody of U.S. Marshals last week. He has been held at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County awaiting his state trial.

Standing shackled in a striped prison jumpsuit beside his attorney, Roof on Monday told the court he understood he would serve life in prison without eligibility for parole. He waived his right to any appeal.

He is expected to be transferred to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, that holds male death-row prisoners, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that monitors U.S. capital punishment.

Since 1988, when the federal death penalty was reinstated, 76 defendants in the United States have been sentenced to death and three prisoners have been executed, according to the center’s website.

Roof becomes the 62nd current federal death row inmate, and appeals in such cases can take a decade or more, the center’s executive director, Robert Dunham, said in a telephone interview.

(Editing by Letitia Stein and Matthew Lewis)

“Death Row Jesus” Campaign Starts Today

The man behind the controversial “Jesus Tattoo” movement is launching a new campaign that he feels will likely be equally controversial to the mainstream church.

“Death Row Jesus” will present Jesus as a death-row inmate.  The campaign will be featured on digital video advertisements in major cities across the U.S.

“When people think about Jesus, they don’t think about him being on death row, but if you think about what he did when he was on earth, that’s really the experience he had,” David Miller told NBC Lubbock.  “We communicate very directly that Christ became the worst criminal in history when he took our mistakes on himself. The second message is we are all equally undeserving of God’s grace.”

The video shows Christ in an orange prison jumpsuit being beaten and then as he’s being crucified the other prisoners in the jail are being set free.

Miller says the campaign is funded by the sale of merchandise from his previous “Jesus Tattoo” outreach.  Miller says that all he does in selling merchandise is not to turn a profit for him but to expand the reach of the message.

“Corporations spend an enormous amount of money marketing whatever their product is and there is nothing wrong with that,” said Miller. “We just think in this case we have a much better product and one that’s everlasting, life-changing, and so it’s certainly worthy of whatever we invest in it.”