Trial Coverage Part I: The State v. Robert Lee Nelson
By Betsy Finklea
“For less than $10, Walter and Mary Swaner lost their lives. They did so in a brutal, savage butchering. Their blood is on his hands,” Assistant Solicitor Shipp Daniel said as he made his opening statement on Monday and so began the trial of Robert Lee Nelson, Jr., who is charged in the December 2009 deaths of the Swaners of Dixie Acres Drive.
Nelson, who is being represented by Attorneys Bill McGuire and Casey Secor, is being tried on two counts of murder, two counts of armed robbery, one count of burglary first degree, and one count of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in General Sessions Court this week with Judge Steven John presiding.
In his opening statement, Daniel, who is prosecuting the case along with Deputy Solicitor Kernard Redmond, laid out the story of what happened to the Swaners on December 20, 2009.
Daniel said that Walter Swaner, who was 84 years old, was at home with his wife, Mary, who was 80 years old, in the Oakland area. He said Nelson went to the side door of the Swaner home and asked if he could use the phone. Nelson used the phone and handed it to Walter and then took a knife from his sock and attacked him. Daniel said the attack was so brutal that it broke the knife from the handle.
Daniel said Mary apparently heard the commotion and was coming down the hallway. Nelson met her in the hallway, knocked her down, and dragged her over to her husband, said Daniel. When she tried to get up, Nelson took a heavy glass vase and hit her over the head, said Daniel. He said that Nelson went into the kitchen, grabbed another knife, and killed Mary. Nelson then went through the house, tried to wipe away some of his fingerprints, and took the knives and left.
“How do we know?,” Daniel asked. “Because he told us.” He told the jury that they would hear his statement to law enforcement.
Daniel said that Nelson gave two statements—one in which he tried to lessen his involvement and a second where he told the above, less than 24 hours after he made the first statement.
“After committing these unspeakable acts,” Daniel said, Nelson “left with less than $10, two bloody knives, and their blood on his hands.”
Daniel said as the voices of Mary and Walter Swaner, the state looked forward to presenting their case to you (the jury).
“I’m scared—that’s what Robert Lee Nelson went and told police,” said Defense Attorney Casey Secor. He said that police said, “we believe you.” Secor said this 19-year-old mentally retarded young man had been in jail for two and a half years. Secor said that Nelson had a tough life. Due to his mental retardation, he said Nelson failed classes. Nelson never had a bank account and never had a driver’s license. Nelson has never lived alone. Nelson needed help reading, cooking, and doing things. He said Nelson had to be reminded to do things such as shower and use deodorant. Secor said as a result Nelson did not have a lot of friends outside of his family. He said as a consequence, Nelson was easily influenced by other people. In his effort to have friends, he went and looked for friends in the wrong place, Secor said, and became friends with some older boys. Secor said it was not hard to see how the older boys would see Nelson as someone of
whom they could take advantage. Secor said on December 20th, Nelson went to house of some of these older boys. Secor said they were smoking pot (marijuana) and drinking, and Nelson joined in because he wanted to be part of the crowd. Some of the older boys wanted to get some money, and they started walking towards the Swaners. The oldest boy asked Nelson if he thought he could get the Swaners to open the door since they knew him because he had done yard work for them in the past. He said no because these were people who had been kind to him. The oldest boy said again like a demand do you think you can get them to the door. He said no he could not help them. The oldest boy said that no one tells him no, and Nelson began to realize he was “not among friends,” said Secor.
Secor said the oldest boy put a pistol in Nelson’s face and told him to go get the Swaners to the door. He said at that point, Nelson had no choice. He told Nelson to ring the bell. Secor said Nelson did not know what was going to happen.
Secor said Walter saw Nelson at the door and opened it because he knew he had nothing to fear from him. He said Nelson saw the boys attacking Walter and went outside. He said one boy was left outside to keep Nelson from leaving. He said that boy told Nelson that they were going back inside. When Nelson went back inside, he saw the bodies of the Swaners, who had been brutally killed on their own living room floor.
Secor said that Nelson kneeled by the body of Walter Swaner and placed a towel over his face out of compassion. He said one of the boys told Nelson to help them come look for money. He said Nelson pulled $2 out of a wallet and threw it down. He said when the boys got what they wanted, they told Nelson to come with them and not tell anyone what happened. He said he watched as the boys threw the knives in the woods. He said they went behind the house of one of the boys and started drinking and smoking again and told Nelson to leave. “Robert should have gone to the police right away,” said Secor, but he didn’t. He said the state will try to make it look like Nelson fled to North Carolina. He said that Nelson did go to North Carolina because he had family there and it was Christmastime.
Nelson got with his pastor and called police. Secor said that Nelson told police exactly what Secor had told the jury and wrote a statement in his own handwriting. He said after Nelson gave his statement, the police charged him.
Secor said when Nelson got to the jail it dawned on him that if these same boys were charged they would be at the jail with him and you can’t leave jail. “Instead of getting help, he got arrested,” said Secor.
Secor said once Nelson realized that these other boys would be coming to the jail, he decided that he needed to change his story. He said then he gave a second statement where he said he murdered them by himself for no reason with no plan.
Secor said Nelson had a reason to be scared, and “he’s scared now.” He is scared that the jury will believe the lie he told on January 6th when he needed to protect himself. He said that the jury will have an opportunity to protect Nelson and protect him from the lie he told because he was terrified for his life. He said the jury will know that Nelson did not commit these acts and that he is not guilty.
After the opening statements, the first witness, Annie Bethea, was called to the stand. Bethea said she met the Swaners about 13 1/2 years ago in the fish creek. She said she became close to Mary Swaner especially.
Bethea said that the last time she talked to Mary was about 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, December 20, 2009. She said Mary called to find out what time they were going to exercise the next day. She told Mary that she was going to a church program and that she would call her when she got back. She tried to call Mary from about 8-10 p.m., but there was no answer. Bethea called several times the next morning, but there was no answer. At about 11 a.m., Bethea called Mary’s sister, Blanche Alford, and asked her if she had talked to Mary, but she had not. Then Bethea called Mary’s sister, Dot, in New York, who asked her to go over there. When Bethea got to the house, some of the Swaners’ family members were there. They had been in the house and saw what had happened.
Althea McGill was the next person to testify. She said that Mary and Walter Swaner were her aunt and uncle. McGill had seen them on Friday and had talked them on Saturday. On Monday, December 21st, she received a call from her mother who asked her if she had talked to Mary Swaner. She said that Annie was looking for her so they could go to exercise. McGill went to the house and the car was there. She rang the doorbell, but no one came. She went to the side door and tried to get in, but couldn’t. She tried to peep in the windows, but didn’t see anything.
McGill went to pick up her mother, Blanche Alford, who will be 88 in October, because she had a key. When they returned, McGill looked in the windows to see if she could see them in there. She saw that the bedroom curtains were open so she got a ladder and looked in, but all she could see was the bed.
This time McGill was able to open the screen door on the side, and she took the key and unlocked the door. McGill got as far as the top step when she saw the Swaners laying on the floor. She said her aunt was more in the doorway. McGill could see that Mary’s nightgown was pulled up and she
had stab wounds. McGill said she did not walk in, but instead backed out.
McGill said that her mother went into the house and she told her to come out because the person might still be in there. She said that her mother covered Mary with a sheet. McGill said a neighbor called 9-1-1.
Deputy Phillip Davis of the Dillon County Sheriff’s Office was the last person to testify on Monday. He said that he responded to a double homicide on Dixie Acres. He said he walked to the door and saw two bodies lying on the floor. He said there was a towel on their faces and a blanket on a body. He said he secured the perimeter and waited for an investigator to come. Davis said once he secured the scene no one else went in to the home.
The jury was shown photos of the home and the state of the bodies during the testimony of McGill and Davis.
After Davis’ testimony, no further witnesses were called on Monday.
The trial continued on Tuesday. Day two of the trial began with Sgt. John Willie Brown. He was the first investigator to arrive at the scene of the double homicide. Brown walked inside to do a sweep to secure the area. He said he saw a male with a towel on his face and a female covered with a sheet.
After Nelson was developed as a suspect, Brown said he and SLED agent Glenn McLellan went to see Nelson on December 22nd. He noticed trash burning behind Nelson’s house. They asked if he minded coming to the Sheriff’s Office to talk about the murder case. He was read the Miranda warning. Brown said Nelson was not under arrest and never indicated that he did not understand his rights and that he wanted a lawyer. Brown said Nelson denied knowing anything about the murder. Brown said they asked if they could take a DNA swab of his mouth. A form was also filled out for this. Brown said that Nelson was free to go.
Brown testified that on December 28th he took a written statement from Betty Malloy.
On January 5th, Brown said that Nelson and his uncle/pastor John Malloy came and said he wanted to tell the truth. He then gave a statement to law enforcement.
Brown said Nelson came in voluntarily, waived his rights to an attorney and seemed to understand what he was asked. He wrote his own statement.
Brown testified about going to the Swaner home on December 23rd and collecting several items including a telephone.
The first statement that Nelson gave law enforcement was then reviewed. In the statement, he said he was at the house of one of the boys on December 20th. They went out to a car and smoked three blunts (marijuana). He said they talked about how they could get some money and talked about selling drugs and robbing. Nelson said the boys asked him if he could get the Swaners to the door, and he said no. He said then one of the boys put a gun in his face and told him to get them to the door. Nelson said when one of the boys pushed him out of the way and rushed Walter Swaner. He and another boy went outside for 20-30 minutes. They came back in. He said he glanced at the Swaners on the floor because he can’t look at dead people. Nelson said someone tossed him a pocketbook, and he got $2 from it. They left with about $6. He said they went back to one of the boys houses and smoked a blunt. He said he couldn’t live with what they did so he came forward and
told the truth.
Brown said they went and arrested the people who Nelson mentioned in his statement. He said these people stayed in jail overnight, but were released on January 6th.
On January 6th, Nelson told a detention officer that he wanted to see an investigator.. Nelson gave a statement to Deputy Robert Bucy and SLED Agent John E. Follin, III. Nelson told them where the knives were, and he took them to the location.
Brown also testified to the fact that it is not unusual for suspects to change their statements.
Secore conducted the cross-examination. Secore questioned Brown about whether Nelson’s rights were “explained” to him and if he understood them. He also asked if they explained to him what the swab was for and what DNA was. Secore also questioned Brown about notes he made as part of the investigation. He said there were details in the notes that were not in the statement such as that Robert said the other boys had on gloves and one had a white napkin.
Agent Glenn McLellan of SLED testified next. He also noted that he saw a pile of trash or burn pile at the house when he and Brown went to talk with him.
Detective Allan Rogers was the next to take the stand. He went to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center when they performed the autopsy and transported evidence to a SLED Agent. He also spoke about a statement that was taken and said that Nelson seemed to understand. He also confirmed that Nelson initiated contact from the detention center and also said that in his experience it is not uncommon for suspects to lie or change their statements.
During the testimony of Deputy Robert Bucy, the jury got to hear the questioning of Nelson by Bucy and Follin. Bucy said after Nelson talked to them his demeanor changed from seeming to have a lot on his mind to seeming relieved. Bucy said he was like a “totally different person.”
During the questioning by Bucy and Follin, Nelson told them he went to the Swaners to use the phone and called someone. He gave the name and phone number he called. Nelson said that he stabbed Walter twice in the stomach. Walter said “Mary” and she started coming from the bedroom. Nelson said he grabbed her and threw her and she fell on her knees. He drug her into the living room and laid her head on her husband, not her whole body. Walter was still alive. She tried to get up and Nelson said he struck her with a glass bowl. He got a knife from the kitchen from the knife block and stabbed her.
Bucy agreed that Nelson gave explicit details on where she was, how he dragged her, and how he placed her. Bucy agreed that Nelson said he went to the door alone and that he was solely responsible. Nelson was repeatedly asked if he was changing his statement because he was scared of anyone or scared that someone might do something to him. Nelson said he was telling the truth.
SLED Agent John E. Follin III testified next. He talked about his involvement in the interview with Nelson.
Dr. Edward L. Proctor, Jr., a physician engaged in the practice of anatomic, clinical, and forensic pathology, was the last to testify on Tuesday. He testified about the autopsies of Walter and Mary Swaner. He said Walter had a least seven stab wounds. Some of these penetrated through the bone into the organs. He had multiple defensive wounds on his hands and arms consistent with someone putting their hands up.
Mary Swaner had seven significant stab wounds, Dr. Proctor said. Some of these wounds also penetrated organs. She also had a blunt force laceration to her forehead. He said he did not note any evidence of her being dragged, but when questioned about whether there would have been marks showing that if it was about a 10 ft. distance on a short carpet then there was a possibility that there would have been no marks.
The trial was expected to continue on Wednesday. The verdict when it comes in will be posted on www.thedillonherald.com and the remainder of the trial coverage will be in The Dillon Herald next week.