Court considering directed verdict in Swiontek trial

2013-06-26T18:00:00Z 2013-06-27T11:12:15Z Court considering directed verdict in Swiontek trialSusan Brown, (219) 662-5325

CROWN POINT | Attorneys for a Portage mother accused of placing her 2-year-old daughter in the care of drug users asked a Lake County judge Wednesday to acquit the woman rather than letting a jury decide her fate.

The request came in the third day of trial for Melissa Swiontek, of Portage, whose daughter Jada Justice was beaten to death in 2009 by the two people Swiontek entrusted to babysit the girl.

In a written motion for Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr., the defense argued prosecutors failed to present sufficient evidence to convict Swiontek of felony neglect of a dependent under the law.

Stefaniak is expected to rule prior to the trial resuming Thursday.

Swiontek, 31, is charged with a single Class D felony for which the penalty is six months to three years in prison if she is convicted. Last week, the judge dismissed a Class A felony neglect charge for which Swiontek had faced a 20- to 50-year prison sentence.

The case presents Stefaniak with the question of whether mere knowledge of the drug activity in her cousin's home is enough to convict Swiontek on a criminal neglect charge.

Defense attorney John Vouga says not, arguing in his 25-year career, he has never seen a third party with no direct involvement in the actual crime convicted of neglect.

Swiontek's cousin, Engelica Castillo and her then-boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, were the ones who placed Swiontek's daughter, Jada Justice, in a dangerous situation, Vouga argued.

"To try to extend that, I've never seen it," he said.

But to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Jatkiewicz, Swiontek wasn't a third party. Swiontek was primary in endangering the child by letting Castillo and Tkachik care for the girl.

Jatkiewicz argued a higher court decision ruled knowingly placing a child in an environment of drug use, drug abuse and drug dealing constituted endangerment.

Jatkiewicz said the state was not alleging Swiontek knew of physical abuse, which trial testimony discounted, but that Swiontek placed the children in a dangerous, drug-filled environment.

But Vouga argued that in three days of trial, no one testified she knew of the couple's heroin use in the months preceding the child's murder and never had the child been returned to her exhibiting the bumps and bruises required to show neglect under the law.

Stefaniak called the decision an "extremely close call."

Earlier Tuesday, Castillo herself, now 22, testified her whole family, including Swiontek, knew of her long-term drug use. But Castillo said Swiontek had no reason to believe her children were not safe with Castillo.

Castillo also testified others in the family frequently left their children in her care. She denied ever punching or slapping any of the children, but she admitted doing drugs and drug trafficking in their presence.

Castillo testified quietly for little more than an hour, appearing subdued and exhibiting little emotion -- except when proclaiming her innocence in the little girl's murder.

"I didn't murder her," she said when the murder charge of which she was convicted was raised.

Castillo's former boyfriend Tkachik still awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to two counts of neglect of a dependent for which he faces a 20- to 50-year sentence.

Castillo is serving a 65-year sentence, reduced from life without parole.

Castillo testified to becoming involved with the then 21-year-old Tkachik at the age of 16 and soon learning he dealt drugs as his main source of income.

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