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Judge shows leniency to vegans who starved child

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A Queens judge showed leniency Monday for a couple convicted of nearly starving their 16-month-old daughter to death on a bare-bones vegetarian diet, sentencing Joseph Swinton to the minimum of five years in prison and Silva Swinton to six.

The raucous courtroom at State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens seethed with anger that at times seemed directed more at the verdict rendered at the trial six weeks ago than at the sentence imposed by Judge Richard Buchter.

The couple was convicted of assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child following a two-week trial in April. According to testimony, the defendants fed their daughter a diet of ground nuts, seeds, vegetable and fruit juice and beans, but no milk or meat.

The judge called the defendants' behavior "bizarre, reprehensible and extremely narcissistic," but added that the couple had no criminal record, posed little threat to society and had made some efforts to care for their daughter, Ice.

The Swintons, both 32, could have received a sentence of up to 25 years.

With time already served since his arrest in March 2002 taken into account, Joseph Swinton should be free in about 3 1/2 years, his attorney said. Silva Swinton, who has been in custody only since the trial ended six weeks ago, will likely serve nearly the entire six years.

Buchter said Silva Swinton bore a greater share of the guilt because she is intelligent and has taken some college courses, while her husband has an IQ low enough to be considered borderline retarded.

As Buchter reviewed trial testimony that described the couple's daughter as emaciated, deficient in bone density and unable to walk due to rickets, Silva Swinton frequently protested, drawing admonishments from the judge.

"Why are you saying that?" she asked. "It's not true!"

The courtroom nearly disintegrated into chaos when Silva Swinton's mother, Etta Rohmbadt, stood up and screamed: "Your honor, I'm her mother" and then lapsed into hysterical tears. She had to be dragged from the courtroom by four court officers and several family members.

The defendants spoke briefly, Joseph Swinton calling the entire situation "blown out of proportion" and his wife breaking into tears at one point.

"I want the court to know that I never intentionally did anything to hurt my child," she said as she wept. She begged the judge to do what he could to keep her family together.

Christopher Shella, Silva's lawyer, noted with irony that the law required Buchter to send Silva to prison - where "people who may have killed people have a lesser sentence."

Ronna Gordon-Galchus, representing Joseph Swinton, cited the couple's careful use of glass bottles and cloth diapers as evidence that the pair did not show "depraved indifference" - the standard necessary to convict on first-degree assault.

"We can't equate playing Russian roulette ... with the same culpability in this case," she said.

But Buchter closed by calling the jury's decision "a righteous verdict, reflective of the moral and ethical standards of our community."

There was no reaction from the Swintons as he read the sentences, but murmurs of "Justice was not served" could be heard from the roughly 40 friends, relatives and supporters in attendance.

Many of the supporters came from as far away as Brooklyn and Harlem. Their anger seemed to be channeled primarily at the jury verdict.

"What we have witnessed here is a miscarriage of justice," the couple's spiritual adviser, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, told reporters following the session. "This couple set out to do the best they knew how for their baby."

A flier circulated by Delois Blakely, the honorary mayor of Harlem (an unofficial but democratically elected position) entitled "Child Abuse or Parent Abuse by the system?" said in part that the Swintons' two children Ice and Ini had been "kidnapped by ACS and handed over to a failed adoption system."

Ini was removed from the couple's home by the Administration for Children's Services shortly after his birth in July 2002. Both Ice and Ini are currently in foster care.

The couple was arrested in March 2002, six months after officials, acting on an anonymous tip, removed Ice from the couple's Queens Village home and took her to Schneider Children's Hospital.

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

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