By Alex Ginsberg
After a Queens jury convicted Joseph and Silva Swinton of nearly starving their 16-month-old daughter to death with a threadbare vegetarian diet, a pediatrician who testified for the prosecution harshly criticized the young couple and lauded the verdict.
“I feel that this is not about race and this is not about veganism or alternative lifestyles,” Debra Esernio-Jenssen said in an interview this week. “It is about two cruel and inhumane individuals who willfully denied their child growth, development and social interaction. And obviously the jury felt the same way.”
Esernio-Jenssen testified during the trial that their daughter Ice was so severely malnourished that her legs were bowed by rickets, her bones were seriously demineralized and she weighed only 10 pounds at 16 months – a weight that was literally “off the growth chart.”
A jury of nine men and three women in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens found the Swintons, both 32, guilty Friday of assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. The decision followed 20 hours of deliberation over three days and could result in a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for each. The Swintons will be sentenced May 19.
As Silva Swinton was led away following the reading of the verdict, she told supporters, “Tell Ice and Ini that I love them.”
Both Ice and Ini, the couple's second child, are currently in foster care.
The couple was arrested six months after Ice was removed from their Queens Village home by agents for the city Administration for Children's Services, who acted on an anonymous tip. The child was treated for severe malnutrition at Schneider Children's Hospital where the Swintons told Esernio-Jenssen and other doctors that they fed Ice a diet of ground nuts, soybeans, herbs, fruit juice and herbal tea.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Rosenbaum, who prosecuted the case, was elated following the announcement of the decision.
“Their verdict speaks for the community on what are limits of what can be done to a child,” he told reporters outside the courtroom. He also praised the jury's work during deliberations, calling it “very focused.”
But defense attorneys emerged from the courtroom looking drawn and exhausted.
“It's beyond belief, what happened in there,” said Christopher Shella, Silva Swinton's lawyer. “There wasn't justice in this case.”
“We're very disappointed in the verdict,” said Ronna Gordon-Galchus, the attorney for Joseph Swinton. “This certainly will be followed up with an appeal.”
Both took particular exception to the jury's decision to convict on the assault charge, noting that in order to find a defendant guilty, the jury must find “depraved indifference to human life.”
“These parents were anything but indifferent,” Gordon-Galchus said. “Everything they did for the child was, they felt, in the best interests of the child.”
Much of the defense's case was devoted to portraying the Swintons as caring – if misguided – parents. Silva Swinton testified that she spent several hours a day preparing a homemade soy formula by soaking nuts and beans and mixing in herbs she believed had nutritional value.
It was an argument that did not convince Esernio-Jenssen. She cited the couple's constant resistance to treatment and therapy after the child was brought to the hospital. She also suggested that the Swintons' treatment of their daughter was part of a calculated effort to keep her docile, small and quiet and avoid the “terrible two's” phase in which children experiment, challenge parents and often cause damage to household items.
“I feel that was something these parents did not want to happen,” she said. “They didn't want to have a healthy, thriving child.”
Remembering the small pink teddy bear Silva Swinton brought with her to court on the first day of the trial, Esernio-Jenssen added, “That's what Ms. Swinton wanted. She wanted a doll.”
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.