SHELBY — Kathy Lynn Swafford, her dark hair streaked with gray, looked at a group of sheriff’s deputies gathered in the courtroom and mouthed, “Please, please.”
She wanted a few moments with her family before spending the next 15 years of her life in prison.
The group of nearly a dozen deputies looked around at each other. Finally, one officer looked at Swafford and shook his head, “No.”
Officers escorted Swafford out of the courtroom, without her family. Swafford, 23, will spend the next 15 years of her life in prison for the death of her son, Jeremiah. She pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder and felony child abuse.
Swafford left the Cleveland County courtroom Thursday wearing a blue blazer with her hair pulled in to a bun. Shackles on her feet clanked as she walked.
As Swafford left the room, Cleveland County lost the chance to hear Swafford’s version of events in the death of her son.
Swafford’s attorney, Fred Flowers, said his client maintains her innocence. Swafford pleaded guilty because, as Flowers told the court, she thinks the plea deal is in her best interest.
She nodded her head vigorously in response.
Judge Robert Ervin sentenced Swafford to a minimum of 18 years in prison, with credit for the three years she served in jail before Thursday’s plea. Swafford was sentenced to 13-16 years for second-degree murder and 5-7 years for felony child abuse inflicting serious injury.
‘Her life will be over’
Swafford’s mother, Kathy Jean Swafford, said she’s now lost a daughter and her only grandchild. During Swafford’s sentencing, Kathy Jean Swafford wore a shirt with Jeremiah’s photo printed on the front.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” Kathy Jean Swafford said with tears in her eyes. “She’s just 23 years old. She’ll be 38 when she gets out. Her life will be over.”
Thursday’s plea agreement comes less than a week before Swafford’s murder trial was set to start in Lincoln County. Flowers requested to move the trial from Cleveland County because of the pretrial publicity surrounding the case.
Swafford was the second person set to be tried for Jeremiah’s murder. Dwight Stacy Justice, Swafford’s husband and Jeremiah’s stepfather, stood trial in January. Justice died in jail of natural causes about a week after a jury convicted him of felony child abuse.
The jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder. Justice was awaiting sentencing that would have sent him to prison for six to 15 years.
During the trial, jurors heard emotional testimony from the doctors and paramedics who cared for Jeremiah in the hours after his fatal injuries.
One paramedic said the Jeremiah’s head felt “squishy” as blood from a traumatic head injury pooled around the toddler’s brain. Autopsy photos showed a six-inch fracture snaking along the side and back of the boy’s skull. He had fresh bruising on his stomach and a healing black eye, doctors said.
The court never heard exactly what led to Jeremiah’s death. Assistant District Attorney Bill Young, prosecutor for the case, read details of the case Thursday, but he didn’t say exactly how Swafford allegedly killed her son.
Tears for Jeremiah
Flowers spoke in favor of his client during Thursday’s court proceedings, telling the judge he’s seen Swafford greatly remorseful about what happened to her son.
“As her advocate and her witness, I'm saying that I've seen her tears," Flowers said.
He said Thursday’s court appearance wasn’t a time to make excuses, but he reminded the court that Swafford wasn’t the only person charged in her son’s death.
“I do emphasize the fact that this was a child in a place with two people,” Flowers said. “And Mr. Justice isn't here to tell about his part."
Swafford was called to the witness stand during Justice’s trail, but she exercised her Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify. Although Swafford didn’t take the stand, jurors heard testimony from Swafford’s former cellmate, who said Swafford admitted to killing Jeremiah by banging his head against the wooden arm of a couch.
Swafford, her feet shackled, broke into tears when the judge asked her if she wanted to say anything to the court.
“I just want to tell my family I love them,” she said, her voice cracking.
Swafford’s father, Bobby, said he was told his daughter would be taken to a Raleigh prison within an hour of her sentencing.
“I think it’s probably for her best (interest),” he said.
Reach reporter Jordan-Ashley Baker at 704-669-3332.