Not guilty of murder, Swezeys could face retrial for manslaughter

The Wenatchee World, Washington/May 15, 2012

Okanogan -- As a large sigh rang out across the courtroom, Greg and JaLea Swezey looked anything but relieved when the judge read their three not guilty, and three hung jury decisions Monday night.

Accused of being criminally responsible for their son's death for praying at his bedside but failing to call a doctor three years ago, the Swezeys were both found not guilty of second-degree murder by an Okanogan County Superior Court jury.

JaLea Swezey was also found not guilty of first-degree manslaughter, while the jury was unable to reach an agreement about whether Greg Swezey is guilty of the crime.

After nine hours of deliberation, the jury also could not reach a decision about whether either Greg or JaLea Swezey are guilty of second-degree manslaughter.

Zachery Swezey was 17 and a junior at Pateros High School when he died at his Carlton home of a ruptured appendix on March 18, 2009, with his parents by his side. In his testimony, and in statements to police, Greg Swezey said he knew 10 or 15 minutes before Zachery died that he was going to die.

Some 70 friends, relatives and church members stuck around Monday after closing arguments and then squeezed into a courtroom that seats 45 to hear the verdict. Many of them came to all three days of testimony last week.

The Swezeys declined to immediately comment on the verdict. Outside the courthouse, a tearful JaLea Swezey could be heard expressing concern that Prosecutor Karl Sloan will retry the counts that were left undecided by the jury, as her friends surrounded her to comfort her.

Others were clearly relieved that this trial resulted in no guilty verdicts.

"I'm grateful that it's not guilty," said Pateros Mayor Gail Howe, who attended many of the hearings. Howe said she's not a member of the Church of the First Born, but her daughter went to school with Zachery, and she's friends with many of those in attendance. "I'm a strong believer in freedom of religion," she added.

"Just happy," is how Greg Swezey's father, Phil, responded.

Over three days, the jury heard testimony from two doctors, a medical examiner, police, a county coroner, Zachery's coaches, and his relatives. Greg Swezey testified in his own defense.

After closing arguments Monday, the jury was asked to decide whether prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Swezeys committed or attempted to commit criminal mistreatment of their son, leading to his death. Criminal mistreatment was defined for them as, among other things, withholding the basic necessities of life, including medical care or medications.

Sloan said the jury doesn't have to consider whether the Swezeys knew that their son had appendicitis, which is life threatening if left untreated. They just had to decide whether a reasonable person would have known he was going to die.

He said the evidence and testimony made it clear that the Swezeys did know Zachery was suffering from the something much more severe than what the rest of the family had, even if they didn't know he had a ruptured appendix.

He noted that JaLea Swezey called other family members to pray for Zachery at 5 a.m. the day after he fell sick, and that Greg Swezey called church elders who traveled from Spokane and Olympia the following day — the day before he died.

He said any reasonable parent should have known after three days of vomiting, diarrhea and a high fever that he needed medical attention.

"Nobody called for an ambulance. Nobody called for a doctor. Nobody provided for this kid to get anything but a slow and painful death," he told the jury. "He died from a condition that virtually no one dies from anymore."

Near the end of his rebuttal, Sloan quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as saying, "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."

But throughout the trail, and in closing arguments, Ellensburg attorney Chelsea Korte sewed seeds of doubt over just how sick Zachery was, and whether his parents knew he was dying.

He pressed the point that the Swezeys thought their son had the flu in the days and hours leading up to his death.

And, he said, it was reasonable for them to think that. Greg and JaLea, and their 18-month old daughter, had all suffered similar symptoms the week, and many students were also absent due to illness in those two weeks, he told the jury.

One by one, Korte tried to pick apart the testimony of the state's witnesses in light of what he said the state had yet to prove — whether the Swezeys knew their son was dying. The state offered no evidence that they did, he told the jury.

Before determining that three of the counts were undecided, Judge Chris Culp ensured that the jury felt it would not be able to reach a verdict on those crimes before reading the verdicts.

He commended the jury, saying, "I, frankly, have never been involved in a case where the jury has deliberated this long."

He set a review hearing for June 4, when Sloan will determine whether to retry the first-degree manslaughter charge against Greg Swezey, and second-degree manslaughter against JaLea Swezey.

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