Vegan trial begins with details of starvation

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The prosecutor in the assault trial of a Queens Village vegan couple lashed out at the defendants Monday, describing the condition of their emaciated child in chilling detail and calling their actions “so wanton and so extreme that in the end it was criminal.”

But attorneys for the couple, Joseph and Silva Swinton, said many of the child’s physical problems were the result of her premature birth, not the vegan diet they fed her. The couple did not seek medical attention for their daughter because of previous negative experiences with doctors, they argued.

The defendants — Joseph Swinton in handcuffs, Silva Swinton free on $20,000 bail — showed no emotion throughout the proceedings. During a break, however, Judge Richard Buchter admonished Silva Swinton for clutching a pink teddy bear, suggesting that it was an attempt to gain favor with the jury in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens.

Joseph and Silva Swinton, both 32, are charged with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly starving their daughter with a bare-bones vegan diet. Prosecutors also contend that the couple failed to alert a doctor after signs of malnutrition became obvious. If convicted, they could receive a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

The couple was arrested in March 2002, six months after an anonymous call brought authorities to their door and their daughter Ice to Schneider Children’s Hospital.

“You will learn how they starved her,” Assistant District Attorney Eric Rosenbaum told the jury of nine women and three men during an emotional opening statement that was objected to frequently by defense attorneys. “You will learn how her bones were practically crumbling.”

He said testimony would show the 16-month-old child weighed only 10 pounds at the time she was removed from the home.

Ice and a younger brother, born in July 2002, were placed in foster care, a spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services said.

Rosenbaum described a diet that included ground nuts, fruit juice, herbal tea, alfalfa, oat straw, kelp, soy milk, cod liver oil and flax seed oil, but no breast milk or baby formula.

The prosecutor left out no unpleasant detail as he listed Ice Swinton’s physical problems: long, untrimmed fingernails, an almost total lack of muscle and fat, legs bowed by rickets, atrophy of the brain, a distended abdomen, inability to vocalize other than by soft crying and “little blue veins showing through paper-thin skin.”

“She was literally falling apart because of what they fed her, and they refused to get her any help,” he said.

The Swintons’ attorneys shot back that the child was small because she had been born premature, weighing only three pounds at birth. Christopher Shella, Silva Swinton’s lawyer, said a doctor would testify that only with devoted, loving care could a child so small have flourished enough to grow to 10 pounds in 16 months.

That care, he argued, included making soy formula by hand two to three times a day.

Ronna Gordon-Galchus, Joseph’s Swinton’s attorney, called the parents “more attentive, more caring, more for their child than the average, typical parent.”

Shella told the jury that an EMS worker and a social worker from the Administration for Children’s Services had visited the Swinton home on two separate occasions and found nothing wrong.

He also made the case that Silva’s faith in the vegan diet was informed by her own health problems.

“Silva her whole life had been going back and forth to doctors,” Shella said. “And they hadn’t helped her.” Only the adoption of a strict vegetarian diet alleviated a thyroid problem that had made her grossly overweight.

Out of this experience, he said, came the Swintons’ interest in alternative medicine, home remedies, veganism and their decision to give birth at home without medical assistance.

He called the choices they made “not criminal, but human.”

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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