CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C. -- Baby killer: Kathy Lynn Swafford knows they whisper that behind her back in prison.
The looks she gets from other inmates also express contempt for a crime that even prisoners consider unthinkable.
Swafford, a 24-year-old mother from Cleveland County, is serving time for killing her own child.
In March, Swafford pleaded guilty in Cleveland County Superior Court to second-degree murder and felony child abuse in the 2009 death of her 2-year-old son, Jeremiah Swafford. The blonde-haired toddler died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Along with her husband, Dwight Stacy Justice, Swafford had been charged with first-degree murder and faced a sentence of life without parole. A jury had already found Justice, 45, guilty of felony child abuse. He was awaiting sentencing when he died of a brain aneurysm Feb. 7, about a week after the trial.
But even though a jury convicted his stepfather, and even though his mother pleaded guilty, what happened to Jeremiah is still unclear.
Before sentencing in March, Swafford told a judge she was innocent.
In a recent interview with the Observer, the first she has given since Jeremiah’s death, she said she pleaded guilty only because she feared she’d get a life sentence.
But her insistence that she’s blameless didn’t stop the murmurings of “child murderer” when she got to the state prison.
At first, she couldn’t take it. In early April, several weeks after she’d arrived at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh and shortly before her 24th birthday, Swafford cut her wrist.
After the suicide attempt, whispers continued. The taunts still hurt – just not as bad.
“I’m used to hurting,” she said. “All it does is make me stronger.”
Prison is home
Swafford is serving an 18-to-23-year sentence at the state’s largest prison for female inmates. Sprawling across 35 acres in southeast Raleigh, the campus-like complex houses about 1,300 offenders at all custody levels, including death row. The prison sits on a 90-acre parcel it shares with two other state prisons.
Swafford talked to the Observer last week in a visiting room at the correctional institution.
She looks very different from the photos taken after her 2009 arrest that show a grossly overweight 20-year-old. Since then, she’s shed about 100 pounds and her long hair is streaked with gray. Sharing a room with another inmate, she’s in school three hours a day, working on a GED; her favorite subject is math. Also a part of her daily routine, she said, is reading the Bible.
Swafford said she’s torn by doubts: whether she could have convinced a jury she was blameless in her son’s death and whether she made the right decision to accept a plea bargain.
“I was scared at the time and they told me if I didn’t take the plea I was going down for life,” Swafford said. “I’m sad and hurting when I feel I could have fought harder.”
Pleading guilty to second-degree murder “tore me up,” she said. “I know I didn’t do it. My God knows it. And my son knows it. I feel God’s going to find a way to get me out of here.”
A Shelby native, Kathy Lynn Swafford grew up in Grover, a small town near the South Carolina line. She dropped out of school in eighth grade, worked for a while at Wendy’s and got pregnant at age 17.
Jeremiah, her only child, was born on March 17, 2006. Swafford said he was almost deaf and her lingering image of him is “him wanting to hug and kiss everybody.”
“She was a good momma,” her mother, Kathy Jean Swafford, said of her daughter. “As good as she could be at that age.”
In 2007, a chance meeting in the Shelby Walmart would change Kathy Lynn Swafford’s life.
As Swafford recalls, she was in the store’s toy department when she spotted a little boy in a wheelchair, crying.
“He said he’d come to the store with his daddy and asked me to help find him. He took off a shoe and had a phone number inside.”
She called the number and also sent a text message. A reply came from his father, Dwight Justice, who was in the electronic section playing video games, she said.
The relationship became more serious in 2008 and in December of that year, she and Jeremiah moved in with Justice and his 8-year-old son, Curtis, who suffered from spinal bifida.
Swafford said that she soon learned she’d made a mistake.
“That same month he beat me and tried to run over me with his car,” she said. “I found out he was really crazy.”
She considered leaving, but stayed on anyway, explaining, “I was young and dumb. I didn’t take life as seriously as I should.”
Both Swafford and Justice had criminal records. Since 2005, she’d been charged with criminal contempt, simple assault and second-degree trespassing. She was convicted of contempt.
Justice had more than two dozen charges, including convictions for larceny, breaking and entering, drug possession and DWI. In custody proceedings for his son, court records show he admitted addictions to alcohol and drugs, but had participated in a 28-day treatment program and was clean.
On Feb. 10, 2009, Swafford and Justice were married by a magistrate at the Cleveland County Law Enforcement Center. In a matter of days, she would be an inmate there in the county jail.
Mystery of Jeremiah
While Justice’s behavior was often erratic and she was sometimes frightened of him, Swafford said she didn’t see her husband abuse Jeremiah, but did observe Justice “whupping” the toddler once.
She never abused her son, Swafford said.
On the evening of Feb. 13, she said Jeremiah was OK when she went to bed after taking two prescription drugs, for bipolar disorder and depression. Swafford said the medications always induced a sound sleep.
When she awoke the next day around 11:30 a.m. she found Jeremiah unconscious in bed.
During Justice’s trial, a medical examiner testified that Jeremiah died Feb. 14 from blunt-force trauma to his head. The toddler had a 6-inch fracture on his head.
Justice didn’t take the witness stand in his trial, but the jury saw transcripts of interviews with law enforcement officers in which Justice repeatedly denied he’d had anything to do with the child’s death. He also said he didn’t see Swafford do anything.
A jury found Justice not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of felony child abuse.
In a letter to his family after the verdict, Justice wrote that he was wrongly convicted and reaffirmed his innocence.
Swafford said Justice told her a different story in 2009.
“At the Charlotte hospital on Feb. 14 he said he was sorry for what he’d done,” though he wasn’t specific, she said. “He said he’d ruined my life and his and that he was going to hell for what he’d done.”
In Justice’s trial, a defense witness who’d been in jail with Swafford testified that while behind bars Swafford had admitted she’d caused the fatal injuries to Jeremiah by picking him up by his feet and slamming his head into a wooden part of a couch.
Swafford said that’s untrue.
Also in the trial, the jury heard a tape of the chaotic 911 call Justice made on Feb. 14, 2009, with Swafford yelling in the background what sounds like “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Swafford said she was yelling “hurry, hurry.”
“I was going crazy,” she said. “That was my baby. He was all I had.”
The questions of what happened to Jeremiah and how he may have suffered have haunted her, she said. And they continue to do so because “the mystery of Jeremiah will never be solved. …This act killed all of us who loved Jeremiah,” Swafford said.
When Swafford wasn’t allowed to attend her son’s funeral she nearly came apart. She wound up at the Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital in Raleigh “because I couldn’t handle it.”
She’s never seen Jeremiah’s grave. But she plans to, someday.
Someday she’ll walk out of prison – free again. She served more than three years in the Cleveland County Detention Center before her plea. She and her family could never raise the money for her bond.
She’ll still be fairly young and, unlike in the past, motivated.
Maybe if she’d gone to trial, the jury would have believed her story. Maybe not.
Her mother, Kathy Jean Swafford, thinks she should have gone to trial. She hopes her daughter “can be a better person. She wasn’t a bad person, but was hard-headed sometimes. I hope she can live a better life – and try harder.”
Kathy Lynn Swafford knows this for sure: Whenever she gets out of prison, she’ll be a changed person.
“I’m going to college and get myself right,” she said. “I won’t be the same person they knew when I came in. I’ll see things differently. I’m going to be somebody. Prison is just a minor setback for a major comeback.”