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Vegan mom: 'Malnourished' baby was healthy

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

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KEW GARDENS, New York (Court TV) -- A woman accused of nearly starving her daughter to death with a strict vegan diet testified Friday that the little girl was healthy before social services intervened.

Silva Swinton, 32, acknowledged to a jury in Queens State Supreme Court that she now realizes the soy bean and herb baby formula she mixed in her kitchen blender was not nutritious enough for her daughter, Ice. Nevertheless, she claimed, the 15-month-old was a "good eater" who could crawl, babble and "walk in her walker" before social workers investigating a report of neglect insisted the girl be hospitalized.

Swinton, who said early on in her four hours of testimony that she distrusted doctors, hospitals and traditional medicine, stopped short of blaming authorities for the child's health woes, but claimed Ice lost her ability to sit up or support her head in the hospital and required an oxygen tube in her nose after complications from a brain scan ordered by medical staff.

Swinton and her husband, Joseph, also 32, are facing first-degree assault charges that carry sentences of up to 25 years in prison. Ice, now 2 1/2 , and her infant brother, Ini, now live with other relatives.

Silva Swinton's testimony was completely at odds with doctors who testified for the prosecution that Ice was as severely malnourished as a Third World famine victim and had the appearance and developmental abilities of a newborn.

Swinton disputed what is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against the couple, a photograph that witnesses have said depicts Ice shortly after she arrived at the hospital. The photo shows a baby girl with her face turned away from the camera. The child's arms and legs are pale and spindly and the child's abdomen is swollen in what doctor's testified was a tell-tale sign of hunger.

"That's not my child," Swinton told jurors. "That's not how she looked when she was with me."

Her lawyer, Christopher Shella, declined to clarify whether his client was suggesting the picture was a fake.

Silva Swinton's testimony, which is to continue Monday morning, was the dramatic high point of the two-week trial. When her name was called as the next witness, the slender 5-foot-10-inch woman with five earrings in her left ear and a silver stud in her chin rose from the defense table and walked without hesitation to the witness box, the two-inch heels of her shiny black boots clicking as she went.

Joseph Swinton watched his wife's progress. He is not expected to take the stand before testimony concludes next week. A defense psychologist told jurors Thursday that he has a seventh-grade education and an IQ of 78, putting him on the borderline of mental retardation. His wife, however, has taken a bevy of college classes, including math, science and literature.

Wearing a salmon-colored blazer over a pastel striped sweater and a long mint green skirt, Silva Swinton was poised and articulate, often pausing for a few seconds before delivering her answers. She lost her composure only once when her eyes welled with tears as she recalled her daughter's reaction to an MRI in the hospital.

The jury of nine women and three men seemed riveted by her testimony. All of the panelists have child-rearing experience, either raising their own children or the children of relatives. No one on the panel is a vegetarian.

She told jurors that she was drawn to the vegan diet after battling a thyroid condition and a weight problem for years. She said that when she met Joseph Swinton in 1994, she weighed "close to 300" pounds, but after she changed her diet, replaced medication with herbs and became more active, she lost 177 pounds.

She swore off doctors and, when she became pregnant, decided to give birth at home. She said she and Joseph bought a home maternity kit containing sterile clothes and directions and prepared by reading books, including "Be Your Own Pediatrician," and watching episodes of the cable television shows "Maternity Ward" and "A Baby Story."

When she went into labor in July 2000 in her home, "I squatted and she came right out," she testified, adding, "Three pushes."

Ice never saw a doctor, she said.

She said that at four months, after Ice became "mucousy" on commercial soy formula, she began making the homemade formula, a mixture of coconut milk, pecans, hazelnuts, ground soybeans and 16 herbs, including Echinacea, slippery elm and dandelion.

Ice, she said, loved the concoction.

She conceded, however, that after social services removed Ice from the family home, she met with a hospital dietician who reviewed the homemade formula and told her it was inadequate.

"According to what the nutritionalist told me, she needed more fat calories," Swinton said. "What she said made sense to me."

On cross-examination, which is to continue Monday morning, Swinton admitted that she brought an ice pick to her daughter's hospital room. Prosecutor Eric Rosenbaum suggested Swinton was barred from the premises thereafter, but Swinton denied it and said she carried the pick everywhere for "defense."

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