He entered the courtroom on March 19 prepared to plea guilty to first-degree murder, adjusted his glasses and smiled at his mother and other family sitting on the front row.
He then took his seat at the defense table, glancing back at his family to mouth the words “I love you,” and listened as Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jones told the court about the August day in 2012 when Swayngim beat his blonde-headed, cheery-eyed little boy to death.
The badly-bruised, 34-pound body of Jake Russell was discovered on the bathroom floor, barely breathing when police and emergency responders arrived to Swayngim’s home around 7:45 p.m. on August. 16, Jones said. Swayngim had called 911 to report that his son was not breathing after falling off a bunk bed. The child was airlifted to Mission Hospital where he died a short time later.
Swayngim’s story about his son’s injuries changed several times from falling off a bunk bed, to falling out of a bathtub, to collapsing while walking down a hallway and having mysterious convulsions while lying in bed. But pathology reports and gruesome pictures of the boy’s battered small body told a different story. Doctors ruled the cause of death was blunt force trauma to his head. Pathology reports indicated it wasn’t the first time the child was beaten.
Swayngim’s defense team, Jack Stewart and M. Victoria Jayne, didn’t challenge any of the state’s evidence, but tried to shine somewhat of a light on the troubled life of their client with an 8th-grade education, who Stewart said “grew up hard …and grew up fast” while his father was in prison for dealing meth.
Stewart explained, the North Carolina native who had four children by the time he turned 23 years old, comes from a family plagued by child abuse, substance abuse, criminal behavior and a history of mental illness that goes back generations.
He referred to the day young Russell died as the day in Swayngim’s life that “something snapped”- a day for which Swayngim will live with guilt for the rest of his life, said Stewart.
Swayngim told the court, “I’m sorry – not to these other people, but to my son. I love my family.”
He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, possession of a firearm by a felon and intentional child abuse inflicting serious injury.In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed to a consolidated sentence for the single charge of first-degree murder, and a sentence of life without parole.
The state could have pursued the death penalty. District Attorney of the 30th Judicial District, Ashley Welch, said the plea agreement “is in the best interest of justice” as it would allow closure for the family without reliving the details or exposing sensitive pictures to the community. Furthermore, she said, the case would have taken two-and-a-half months to try, and if a jury sentenced him to death, there would be no guarantee that an execution would ever actually happen.
“This is one of those days when there is no bright side,” Superior Court Judge Brad Letts said. “No winners. No success. No joy. No happiness.”
Perhaps the only solace to the “sad, inexcusable end to (Russell’s) life,” Letts said directing his eyes toward the child’s mother, will come from knowing that he felt loved by his mom, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles; and the happy memories they hold of his boisterous smile and glowing hazel eyes.