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Supreme court appeal denied for murderer of state park worker

JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE Randy Swaney is escorted into Rock County District Court in Luverne for sentencing in this August 2008 file photo.

LUVERNE -- Unless Randy Leeroyal Swaney can find a federal issue to cite, which is unlikely, his remedies for an August 2008 murder conviction have been exhausted and the man accused of murdering Blue Mound State Park worker Carrie Nelson will stay in prison for the rest of his life.

The Minnesota Supreme Court filed a decision Thursday denying most of the arguments made by Swaney regarding his conviction in that murder.

One argument was affirmed, but the opinion filed with the court states an error in admitting an investigator's questions during the trial in August 2008 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Such an error does not automatically require reversal of the defendant's claims and the granting of a new trial," the opinion states.

Nelson was killed in 2001 while working in the office at the state park, the first time in state history a state park worker has been murdered on duty. Evidence at the scene included an abandoned watch, a multitude of fingerprints, a pack of cigarettes and small portions of broken rock.

The killer had used an engraved rock from the office to bludgeon his 20-year-old victim to death. More than $2,000 in cash was missing from the park safe, along with two bank bags.

DNA from the watch returned no usable results after the crime scene was processed and the case remained unsolved until the fall of 2006, when a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) scientist analyzed the DNA found on the watch. Technology had advanced enough that the scientist was able to come up with a better sample. In April 2007, the scientist searched Minnesota databases and asked neighboring states to do the same. In South Dakota the sample returned a hit, providing authorities with a possible suspect -- Swaney, who was in prison on unrelated charges. From there, the case progressed swiftly, and Swaney's trial for Nelson's murder began mid-August 2008. After more than six hours of deliberation, a jury returned a verdict of guilty in each of the seven counts filed against him, including first-degree murder.

Swaney was sentenced the following day to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

When given an opportunity to speak, Swaney blamed his conviction on a small town that wanted closure.

"I feel sorry for Carrie's family, but I still maintain my innocence," he stated. "I will appeal. I will fight this conviction."

Notice of his intention to appeal was filed with the courts before the year was out. Because the case in question involved murder, the appeal went straight to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Swaney offered a variety of arguments against his conviction and the opinion filed Thursday contains more than 40 pages of detail and explanation.

Swaney stated in his appeal that a line of questions to an investigator who had interviewed his wife should have been inadmissible, as it violated his Confrontation Clause rights and constituted hearsay. That argument was affirmed by the Supreme Court, but deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because other direct evidence supported the facts introduced during the investigator's testimony.

"We hold that the violation of Swaney's Confrontational Clause rights ... does not require a new trial," the opinion states.

Other arguments raised by Swaney and his legal team were systematically shot down by the judges in the document. They do not believe the district court erred when granting the state's motion to exclude evidence of an alternative perpetrator's past crime because the murder of Nelson was not sufficiently similar to the other man's crime.

An argument that the state committed an error by attacking Swaney's character and speculating about events occurring at the time of the murder was also dismissed, along with claims of improper rebuttal testimony.

On one argument -- that of prosecutorial misconduct -- one of the judges filed a separate opinion stating he would hold that the state did commit misconduct, but that the misconduct was harmless and did not affect Swaney's substantial rights.

Swaney also argued 12 other points, including that the district court should have granted his change of venue request, that he did not receive a fair trial because the jury was biased against him, that the state improperly used parts of a pre-sentence investigation to suggest he had a gambling problem, that the state improperly acknowledged Nelson's father in the presence of the jury and that the state knowingly allowed two witnesses to "perjure themselves" while testifying.

"We have examined each claim ... and conclude that each claim lacks merit," the opinion concludes. "We therefore hold that there was no error."