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Christopher Swem

Other New York Exonerations
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In the early morning of August 19, 2017, 30-year-old Shawndell Anderson was stabbed to death in Watertown, New York.

Witnesses told police that Anderson and 30-40 people had attended a crowded party at the home of Jonathan Murphy. The police had been called at about 2:20 a.m. after reports of a fight. But officers did not see any violent activity and left. They were called back 15 minutes later. By then, Anderson was being driven to Samaritan Medical Center, where he died an hour later.

Anderson had fought with several people during the party, including 34-year-old Christopher Swem, who was arrested on August 20, 2017, at a motel near Syracuse, about 70 miles away. Video footage from a car wash outside of Watertown showed Swem placing clothes in the business’s dumpster. The police performed serology and DNA testing on the clothing and found Anderson’s blood on a shirt.

Swem’s trial began in Jefferson County Court on July 24, 2018.

Witnesses testified that Murphy saw that his television had been damaged after the first time the police came. He tried to get people to leave, but more fights broke out. Murphy then asked Swem for help clearing the apartment.

Murphy went inside first, and he fought with Anderson. A witness said she saw Murphy hit Anderson in the head with a pool cue. A few minutes later, Anderson fought with another friend of Murphy’s. Swem went into the living room to assist Murphy. Anderson pushed Swem’s girlfriend, and then Swem and Anderson fought.

None of the state’s witnesses saw Swem stab Anderson, but several testified that they saw Swem punch Anderson in the chest. One witness said she saw blood on Anderson’s shirt almost immediately after getting hit by Swem. But another witness said that Anderson was wearing a white shirt with a red print, which could have been mistaken for blood.

The witnesses also testified that they didn’t see a weapon in Swem’s hand, and no blood was found in the living room, where Swem and Anderson fought. After that altercation, Anderson and other guests left through the apartment’s long hallway, and some witnesses testified that they heard what sounded like another fight in that area.

Murphy also testified that someone other than Swem handed him a folding knife, which he hid behind the stove.

Dr. Robert Stoppacher, the chief medical examiner at the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office, performed Anderson's autopsy. He testified that the deepest of Anderson’s five stab wounds was 4.8 inches, which meant that the blade would have to be at least that long. The knife behind the stove was too short. In addition, Stoppacher said that four of the wounds were consistent with a single-edged blade, such as a steak knife, while one appeared to be more similar to a double-edged blade, like that of a dagger. John Hallett, Swem’s attorney, used this evidence to suggest that Anderson had been stabbed with two different weapons.

Korey Jones, a friend of Swem’s, testified that he told Swem about Anderson’s death at about 9 a.m. on August 19, 2017. Jones said that Swem “sunk” upon hearing that news. Jones also testified that Swem acknowledged the fight with Anderson and told Jones that he had a knife with him, but that he didn’t know what happened to the weapon. Jones also testified that Swem never said he had the knife out during the fight with Anderson.

Swem did not testify. Hallett presented only one witness, Panja Mathis, Swem’s girlfriend. She said the fight between Anderson and Swem started after Anderson pushed her down when she chastised him for pushing another woman.

The jury convicted Swem on July 31, 2018, of murder in the second degree, assault in the first degree, assault in the second degree, criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree and tampering with physical evidence. He received a sentence of 24 years to life in prison.

Swem appealed his conviction, arguing that he was convicted based on insufficient evidence and that Judge Kim Martusewicz had improperly failed to give the jury an instruction about the circumstantial nature of the state’s case.

Initially, the appeal noted, the prosecution had requested the circumstantial evidence charge. Hallett agreed. But then the prosecution reversed course and said no instruction was needed because there was both direct and circumstantial evidence. Judge Martusewicz agreed, ruling that Swem’s attendance at the party was direct evidence, eliminating the need for the special charging instruction.

The Supreme Court of New York’s Appellate Division for the Fourth Judicial Department vacated Swem’s conviction on April 24, 2020. It said Judge Martusewicz should have given the jury a circumstantial evidence instruction. The ruling noted the chaotic nature of the party in the moments prior to the stabbing, Anderson’s other fights, and the lack of an identified murder weapon.

“None of the witnesses who observed defendant fighting with the victim observed anything in defendant’s hand during the altercation, and no blood was discovered in the room in which defendant and the victim engaged in their altercation,” the court said. “All of the evidence at trial required the jury to infer that defendant was the perpetrator who had the knife and that he used that knife to stab the victim. We thus conclude that a circumstantial evidence instruction was warranted.”

Swem posted bond and was released from prison on June 5, 2020.

His retrial began May 4, 2022, in Jefferson County Court. The state’s case was still circumstantial, but Hallett had additional evidence favoring Swem.

Murphy now testified that a man named Xavier Drayton had told him right after the incident that he had stabbed someone and then showed Murphy the knife. Drayton testified and denied any involvement with Anderson’s death. A Watertown police officer testified that he knew about this interaction between Drayton and Murphy but never followed up with an interview of Drayton.

The jury acquitted Swem on May 13, 2022 of the murder and assault charges. It convicted him of tampering with evidence, related to putting his clothes in the dumpster.

Swem told WWNY-TV after the verdict: “They’ve been wasting years of my life for no reason, and when they said not guilty, everything just lifted off my shoulders. You live and learn, you grow. Even that experience taught me a lot of things – who was there for me, who wasn’t there for me. How people will lie and they don’t care. So I just took it as a lesson.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/22/2022
Last Updated: 6/22/2022
State:New York
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2017
Convicted:2018
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:24 years to Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No