The district attorney and the family thought the proof was there for a first-degree murder conviction in the killing of Jack Swaim in his living room two years ago, but they were satisfied Tuesday with a jury’s second-degree verdict that will put his killers away for 15 years to the rest of their lives.
“We were really hoping for murder one, but the DA did a good job and it’s going to be a long time before these guys see the light of day,” said Sherrie Swaim, the victim’s sister.
Convicted in Swaim’s killing were Jeffrey Douglas Powell, 31, and Christopher Lawrence Langlois, also 31. Witnesses said the predawn slaying was the result of a misplaced retaliatory attack sparked by the beating of an acquaintance of the defendants several hours earlier.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet set the sentencing of Powell and Langlois for March 27 in the fatal Jan. 5, 2013, break-in at Swaim’s house on Stonehand Avenue in Citrus Heights.
According to testimony at trial, Swaim’s son, Jimmy, suspected a friend of the killers of trying to break into his truck in the middle of the night. The younger Swaim, after a brief altercation with the friend, Andrew Les Johnson, 30, chased him to a nearby 7-Eleven and beat him severely using brass knuckles.
Johnson rallied Powell and Langlois and another man, Jason Payne, to back him up in the planned retaliation at Stonehand Avenue. Johnson kicked the door in and the four rushed into the front room of the house where they found the elder Swaim asleep on the couch. He was beaten and stabbed.
Jurors found that the presence of Powell and Langlois in the house during the attack was enough to establish their guilt to second-degree murder, if not first.
“We couldn’t give them the intent, the intent of going into the house intending to kill,” said the jury foreman, a 52-year-old schoolteacher who declined to give his name. “It seemed what they were really trying to do was go in there to get some payback.”
The foreman said “it was not an easy decision” for the panel, that there was substantial support among the 12 jurors for a first-degree finding.
The jury found true the allegation that Powell wielded the knife. According to the foreman, the jurors also thought that Johnson and Payne were guilty of murder. He said they also wanted to convict a young woman Johnson met earlier that night for driving the group to Stonehand. Neither she nor Payne were charged. Both testified at trial.
Johnson pleaded no contest before trial to voluntary manslaughter and agreed to testify against Powell and Langlois. Under the terms of his plea deal, Johnson will be sentenced to 27 years in prison. His sentencing also is scheduled for March 27.
Johnson and Payne provided similar accounts of the events that led up the killing. They differed, however, in detailing exactly what happened inside Swaim’s house. Payne said Johnson took part in the beating of the man. Johnson said he did not, that it was strictly a Powell and Langlois effort. They both agreed they had seen Powell at various times that evening with a knife. The weapon was never recovered.
Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower said prosecutors also could have charged Payne with murder. In the end, they saw him as a better witness than defendant and the least culpable of the four.
“We had to decide who was going to tell us what it looked like in that living room,” Hightower said. “Mr. Payne was the only one who didn’t have bloody shoe prints all over the place, and both he and Mr. Johnson, separately and independently, when they talked to the police, agreed that Mr. Payne hadn’t done anything to Jack Swaim, hadn’t thrown a single punch. So he obviously became the candidate to be a witness.”
Hightower said, “I obviously thought first-degree was the correct verdict for Mr. Powell, but anytime the jury puts the amount of time in that this jury did and they examine the evidence as carefully as they did, the system worked as it was designed to work. They came back with a verdict that was right and just and who am I to argue with that?”
Powell’s lawyer, Keith J. Staten, said, “I’ll defer to the jury as to their decision-making. Of course I disagree, but I understand their finding.”
Defense attorney Danny Brace, who represented Langlois, argued that his client did not participate in the beating. “But I couldn’t convince them otherwise,” he said.
Langlois and Powell have prison records. According to online Sacramento County court records, Langlois has six felony convictions dating to 2005 and has been imprisoned twice, for methamphetamine and being an ex-convict in possession of a firearm. Powell went to prison once for burglary in 2003, the records showed.
During the trial, Payne testified that the word on the street was that he had been “greenlighted” – or targeted for killing – by the “Sacramaniacs” prison gang, as well as by “skinheads and more-or-less motorcycle associations” for testifying against Powell and Langlois.