After drunken driver is sentenced, victim’s father interrupts to share his unending grief

After drunken driver is sentenced, victim’s father interrupts to share his unending grief
Justin Swanson and then-girlfriend Sarah French at Swanson’s 30th birthday party. Swanson died after being hit by a car while trying to cross Pacific Street in December. (Courtesy Photo)

The drunken driver’s defense attorney had given his spiel. A prosecutor had given hers.

And a judge had imposed both sides’ agreed-upon sentence in a strange case that ended in the December death of 31-year-old Omaha resident Justin Swanson: 14 months in jail.

Three minutes later, the hearing was over. Justice was done.

Except for this: Swanson’s father, Marty Swanson, hadn’t been able to address the court. Holding an envelope of four enlarged photos of his son, Swanson reluctantly, nervously spoke up.

“Your Honor,” he said from the front row. “I thought I would be able to give a victim-impact statement?”

Judge James Gleason looked at Swanson, then at prosecutors, then back at Swanson.

Gleason said he wanted to hear Swanson’s statement but cautioned the 57-year-old father: The sentence won’t change for Esteban Conforte, the 28-year-old defendant.

Indeed, the sentence didn’t change. But everything else about Tuesday’s hearing did, as a father laid bare his grief over the death of his only son.

His hands trembling as he fished out 16-by-20-inch photos of his son, Marty Swanson took the courtroom on a tour of the 31-year-old’s abbreviated life. The photo array had courtroom spectators, including Conforte, in tears.

There was Justin, the cute kid looking over his parents’ shoulders in a family portrait. A “curious, energetic little guy,” his dad called him.

Marty and wife Paula divorced when Justin was 11, but Justin “stayed on track, doing well in school and in life.” He was a shy kid, then a shy young man.

Then a photo of Justin on his skateboard, performing a leap at a local skate park. By his teenage years, Justin found his mojo — with a love of skateboarding and making goofy videos with his friends.

By early adulthood, the Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson High School graduate started to break out of his shell as he figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

“I could never work in a cubicle,” he told his dad, a computer programmer.

And so he didn’t. At places like House of Loom and Brickway Brewery, he spun cocktails and mixed drinks and kept the most immaculate bar you could find. He also wrote songs. He and his friends had a three-member band playfully called Flesh Eating Skin Disease.

Dad described how his son’s stage presence veered from singing to belting out lyrics in a “Cookie Monster voice” — the gravelly yelling of some punk rockers.

The shy young man had come out of his shell, both in the band and behind the bar.

“His circle of friends and acquaintances grew by leaps and bounds,” Marty said. “And his confidence in himself grew immensely.”

Then came Dec. 14. Justin and his father had just switched cars so Marty could make some repairs on Justin’s. Then someone stole Marty’s car from outside Justin’s apartment.

Beating himself up a bit, he and friend and bandmate Alex Aparo went out that night. They stopped at the Brothers Lounge in midtown. Justin, who was intoxicated, and Alex decided to take a cab home.

The cab stopped about 68th and Pacific Streets, and Justin got out. He wanted to walk the rest of the way to his apartment near 72nd and Pacific Streets.

Alex crossed to the south side of Pacific Street. In time, Justin decided to cross, too, though not at a crosswalk.

He stepped into traffic, in front of Conforte. The collision with Conforte’s Honda toppled Justin onto the hood, his head breaking the windshield before he fell onto Pacific Street. Conforte’s blood-alcohol content was .13, above the legal limit of .08, prosecutors said. Conforte, who had no record, took off but soon called 911, and Omaha police found him near the scene.

Justin also was intoxicated — which contributed to the crash and to the plea bargain that allowed Conforte to plead to misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide and drunken driving, prosecutors say. Attorney Stu Dornan said Conforte — a University of Nebraska at Omaha student — “is haunted by the tragedy he was a part of.”

Tuesday, Marty Swanson declined to skewer Conforte, as some victims’ family members do at sentencing hearings. He noted that Conforte, who cried through much of Tuesday’s hearing, had no record.

“I had no desire to crucify him,” he said.

Instead, Swanson focused on his son’s life — and the grief that has enveloped him since his son’s death.

“It’s hell on earth every day — if not for the whole day, here and there throughout,” Marty said. “It should have been my parents, then me, then him. It’s out of order. How do I figure out how to accept this? It’s extremely lonely — and leaves me with a feeling of emptiness.”

None more so than the day — six days after the crash — that Marty and Paula had to decide to take Justin off of life support. Marty described going into the hospital bathroom, “getting sick and begging to change places” with Justin.

“I was soon put into the position … (where) I had to put my signature on a document that I knew was going to end my son’s life forever,” he told the judge. “I now hate my signature. I hate the thought of how many more times I have to write it out before my time’s up.”

Marty said his son’s death has affected his sleep, his motivation, his life. Tuesday, he pulled out a picture of the urn containing his son’s remains — and noted that the young man who never wanted to be boxed in is in “a cube for the rest of eternity.”

One photo is therapeutic. It’s of Justin at his 30th birthday, squeezing his girlfriend in a hug while she throws her head back in a laugh.

As he holds the photo, Marty recounts how friends and therapists have told him things will get better with time.

Dad’s voice breaks.

“I hope so,” he says. “Sometimes when things get too overwhelming, I think of how at least Justin doesn’t have to hurt or worry again. What a twisted way to make myself feel better.”

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