James R. Swinney strangled his mother in an argument over $20, defense attorneys admitted Tuesday. Carolyn Swinney was tired of lending her 34-year-old son money, they said. She was sick of his drifting from job to job. She suspected that he just wanted the money for his girlfriend.
So they argued and Swinney slapped her. She kneed him in the groin and then Swinney "lost it," he told police in a confession jurors heard Tuesday.
"I just grabbed her by the neck," Swinney said on a tape played in court on the first day of his trial for first-degree murder and robbery. "She just looked up at me like, "Why are you doing this?"'
Within minutes, prosecutors and the defense agreed there was no doubt that Swinney killed his 55-year-old mother last March.
But they disagreed on one point: Was it a premeditated killing or a crime of passion? The prosecutors said Swinney had time to reflect and did so while he attacked his mother.
But the defense, which called no witnesses, asked jurors to find Swinney guilty of a lesser charge.
"It was a crime of passion," said Assistant Public Defender Paul Firmani. "He was so remorseful (afterward) that he planned to kill himself the Friday after his mother's death."
Swinney dropped out of school in the 10th grade, couldn't find a steady job and lived in a ramshackle house without water or electricity at the end of Sunbeam Lane in Town 'N Country.
His mother had taught at James Monroe Junior High School for nearly two decades. Co-workers said Mrs. Swinney helped disadvantaged children in public housing complexes and always could be counted on to give a child a ride home late at night.
Until March 9, she always was willing to give her son a hand.
That night, Mrs. Swinney argued with her son about the money. He probably strangled her with his hands, the medical examiner told jurors.
Afterward, Swinney told police he looped an electrical cord around her neck and dragged her body nearly three feet before tying her to a door knob.
Then, he took the rings off her fingers, scattered the contents of her purse on the floor and cut the videocassette recorder from the television, hoping to convince police that a burglar had killed his mother, the defense said.
Swinney threw several rings from the car window as he drove his mother's 1985 Thunderbird to Tampa International Airport. He left the car there with the keys in the ignition. He left the VCR in a doghouse on a friend's property.
"I lost it," Swinney told police during his confession, his voice breaking. "I didn't mean to do it."
Closing arguments will start today.