- Associated Press - Friday, January 17, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - A man who was given a new trial after spending 28 years on death row and was once two hours away from execution pleaded guilty on Friday to two murders.

Roy Clifford Swafford entered guilty pleas in Daytona Beach to first-degree murder for the deaths of Brenda Rucker and Diane Markland three decades ago. Circuit Judge R. Michael Hutcheson sentenced him to two consecutive life terms in prison.

Swafford had been on death row for almost three decades for Rucker’s 1982 death until the Florida Supreme Court last November ordered a new trial. The high court raised serious questions about the evidence in the case.

A grand jury in Volusia County indicted Swafford on Thursday for the shooting death of Markland in 1981. Prosecutors said DNA found on Markland matched that of Swafford.

In the Rucker case, the Supreme Court said Swafford was convicted of Rucker’s 1982 murder largely on testimony that acid phosphatase, which is found in semen, was found on Rucker, a gas station attendant, though no sperm was found in the sample. When the evidence was retested in 2005, neither acid phosphatase nor semen was found on the swabs. Without evidence of a rape, it is unlikely Swafford would have been found guilty on any of the charges, the court said.

“The State’s entire case was built around a theory that Swafford’s motive in abducting and murdering the victim was to engage in a sexual battery against her,” the ruling read. “If there was no sexual battery, then the State’s entire theory of the case has been eliminated because the State’s circumstantial case was premised on Swafford’s motive having been the sexual battery. No witness, DNA, or fingerprints link Swafford to the victim or the murder weapon.”

Even though there were serious doubts about the evidence in the Rucker case, Swafford pleaded guilty on Friday to ensure he could spend the rest of his life in the general prison population, and not back on death row, said his public defender, Matt Phillips.

Prosecutors intended to try him again in the Rucker case, as well as try him for Markland’s murder. He also was serving a life sentence from an unrelated kidnapping case. Prosecutors knew of the DNA match years ago, but only indicted Swafford for the Markland murder this week because they didn’t want to restart the death row clock he was facing in Rucker’s case, Phillips said.

“It seemed like a good resolution to him,” Phillips said. “He knew he wasn’t going to get out of jail with the other homicide case. He just wanted to spend his years in the general population.”

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