Judge issues directed verdict of acquittal in neglect case
Lake Superior Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. on Thursday issued a directed verdict of acquittal for the mother of a murdered toddler who was on trial for neglect for leaving the girl with known drug users and dealers.
Melissa Swiontek, 31, whose daughter, Jada Justice, was murdered in June 2009 by her cousin, Engelica Castillo, and Castillo’s then-boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, hugged defense attorneys John Vouga and Jason Denny after Stefaniak announced his decision.
Stefaniak said that while Jada’s murder case “is probably one of the most horrific cases” that he’s presided over and that it’s understandable that the state would want to punish individuals involved in hurting children, Swiontek was unaware, based on evidence presented at the trial, that Castillo and Tkachik were heavily using heroin about one month before Jada’s beating death. The judge noted that it was in that “heroin-crazed” state that the couple beat and killed the girl, then tried to cover up her murder.
Stefaniak said a nagging question that remained with him throughout Swiontek’s case was whether it was foreseeable that Tkachik and Castillo would beat Jada to death. The judge said in his mind, it was not. Stefaniak said there also was no evidence that Swiontek knew that Jada was taken to drug deals with Tkachik and Castillo. Testimony showed that Castillo had watched not only three of Swiontek’s children, but numerous other children without incident, despite it being well known among family members for whom she babysat that she had a drug problem.
Last week, Stefaniak dismissed a second neglect charge, a Class A felony punishable by 20 to 50 years, that alleged that Swiontek’s knowingly or intentionally putting Jada in the care of Tkachik and put her in a situation that endangered her life or health and resulted in her death.
“Justice has been served,” Vouga said after the hearing.
Tkachik, whose plea agreement to neglect of a dependent charges required his cooperation in the prosecution of individuals involved in Jada’s death, has a July 19 sentencing hearing. He faces 20 to 50 years.