In the working-class neighborhood of Queens Village, Joseph and Silva Swinton stood out. The vibrant young couple, who exchanged vows in an unofficial beach wedding in 1996, were known for their free-thinking outlook and firm beliefs in a natural-foods diet.
On July 31, 2000, in the one-family house the couple shared with relatives, Ms. Swinton gave birth to a baby girl with no doctor or midwife present. The couple named her Iice Wings Swinton.
Born prematurely, Iice (pronounced ICE) weighed 3 pounds, well below the average birth weight, and had a lung disorder.
Ms. Swinton, a strict vegetarian, put the baby on a natural-foods diet and spent many hours buying expensive organic produce and vitamins, and painstakingly preparing purée formulas each day.
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But 15 months later, Iice was still underweight. An anonymous call was made to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. The agency sent officials to check on Iice and on the evening of Nov. 16, 2001, she was taken to the hospital for a medical examination.
In findings that resulted in a State Supreme Court trial that is unfolding this week in a Queens courtroom, examining physicians discovered a host of medical problems and declared Iice in danger of dying.
City officials contacted the Queens district attorney’s office, which eventually charged the Swintons, both now 32, with first-degree assault, contending they knowingly endangered Iice’s life with a strict diet. All dairy products, including infant formula, were kept from the child.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Eric Rosenbaum, an assistant Queens district attorney, charged that Ms. Swinton did not breast-feed Iice or feed her a soy-based baby formula, but rather kept the child to a diet that included fruit juices, ground nuts and puréed fresh vegetables. The only animal product given to the child was cod liver oil.
Prosecutors say that the Swintons almost starved Iice to death and refused to seek medical care, ignoring obvious symptoms over many months. The poignant drama has made headlines as the Vegan Baby case.
The prosecution, which rested its case yesterday, has brought in a string of witnesses, from doctors to relatives, to convince a jury that the Swintons knowingly nearly killed the baby.
If convicted, the couple face a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. They have pleaded not guilty. Each was held in $20,000 bail. Ms. Swinton was able to post it, but Mr. Swinton has remained at Rikers Island since April.
Doctors have testified that Iice was taken to the hospital that November evening weakened from malnourishment and weighing 10 pounds, about half the average weight for a 15-month-old.
Doctors said that the child was toothless and suffered from rickets, broken bones and other internal problems. One doctor testified that she looked as if she had been through ”a famine in a far-off country.”
The Swintons’ lawyers contest the charge that Iice was in grave health when she was taken from her parents. Ms. Swinton’s lawyer, Christopher B. Shella, noted that several city officials who visited Iice before she was removed from the home reported that the baby was not in imminent danger.
The prosecution, they say, is creating a media circus out of a case that at worst may have warranted review in Family Court.
Mr. Shella said that Iice’s premature birth caused medical deficiencies that required a careful diet. He described the Swintons as dedicated to raising a healthy child. If this went awry, he added, it was not because of malice and does not warrant prison time.
Yesterday, Mr. Swinton’s lawyer, Ronna Gordon-Galchus, asked Justice Richard L. Buchter to dismiss the case on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove that Iice was in danger of dying and that the Swintons did nothing ”so egregious to prove intentional conduct.” The Swintons, she said, were ”loving and attentive and did nothing knowingly to harm their child.”
”They did not understand the severity of the condition, though they loved their child,” Ms. Gordon-Galchus said.
The judge denied the motion.
At lunchtime yesterday, Ms. Swinton sat with her lawyers in a Pizza Hut across the street from the courthouse. The lawyers had pizza. She ate trail mix. She wore a metal stud in her lower lip, and a button on her bag read: ”Save the Black Family.”
Ms. Swinton said in an interview that switching to a strict vegetarian diet helped her and her husband overcome chronic health problems and that they hoped it would do the same for their child. Her lawyers added that Ms. Swinton spent several months trying to find a baby formula that would not aggravate Iice’s lung disorder by creating excess mucus.
Iice grew healthier after spending four months in a children’s hospital on a medically prescribed diet. She is now in the care of Ms. Swinton’s aunt, along with the Swintons’ son, Ini Swinton, who was removed from the Swintons’ custody shortly after he was born at home last July.
The children remain on a meatless diet approved by doctors, and Ms. Swinton is allowed supervised visits twice a week.
Yesterday, Ms. Swinton cheerfully showed recent pictures of her with the two children during a visit. They look robust and happy in her arms. Privately, the Swintons’ friends call them loving parents who loved their child well, if not wisely.
Each day, about a dozen people watch the case — mostly reporters, relatives and court watchers from black advocacy groups who charge that the city removes children from the homes of black families at a disproportionate rate.
At lunchtime each day, the jury heads out to the delis and fast-food restaurants on Queens Boulevard, and Mr. Swinton is put back into handcuffs and led into a back room.
Yesterday morning, about 45 third graders from Public School 173 in Flushing filed in for a field trip to court, unaware of the case. The judge in the case, Justice Buchter, warned the teachers that testimony could possibly be ”inappropriate for young children,” and after 15 minutes of testimony about the battle over Iice, the class filed out.