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Ginny Hann's killer hits the end of the road

Murder trial gives journalist pause to reflect on guilt and violence

Editor's note: Although the crime against Ginny Hann has passed from the headlines in the scant week since Martin Swan's conviction, there remain questions unanswered. The violent crime struck a chord with Kerry Thomson, who chose to attend the trial as a journalistic exercise. Thomson, a contributor to this paper for the past year and a master's candidate in the journalism program at the University of Montana, sat in on the trial every day, and told us as the story unfolded of the overwhelming experience she had while contemplating the crime. As opposed to letting the echoes of the victim's experience pass with the observations of the mainstream media, the editors felt it was important to take a final look at the sad and unnecessary fate met by Ginny Hann.

The moment the jury returned to the courtroom a mere three and a half hours after deliberation, I knew by their faces they had found Martin Swan guilty of killing Ginny Hann.

Some jurors looked straight ahead as they walked behind Swan, others had eyes downcast. A female juror who wore cryptic expressions throughout the trial glanced at Swan as she passed. Looking forward again, she clenched her jaw with resolve. Each wore a somber expressions that spoke of the burden they carried into courtroom number three that Tuesday afternoon.

Along with nearly 70 other people, Judge Ed McLean watched the six men and six women walk single file to the jury box. We all waited in a chilly, air-conditioned courtroom to hear the decision. Voices quelled to silence as jurors took their seats. The bailiff, delivering the verdict to McLean, passed the mound of evidence-a foot and a half high and three feet wide-that had grown each day of the trial.

To the count of deliberate homicide, the jury finds the defendant guilty, read the clerk. The echo of the statement was answered by a wail from Ginny Hann's mother, Brenda, and a slack face from Swan, who went stark white at the word.

Guilty. Guilty of asphyxiating Ginny, a 19-year-old cowgirl from Dodson, Mont., who worked at Taco Bell and had dreams of going to college. Guilty of attempting to sexually assault Ginny either shortly before or after she was killed. Guilty of abandoning her body like so much waste on a remote, icy road south of town in the early morning hours. Guilty of shattering the lives of Ginny's parents, sisters and brother forever.

For the first two days of the trial, I listened to the prosecution build a case against Swan. Each night, I came home to find myself challenged at having to write an objective story, struggling to report on the defense's logical counters to the prosecution's theories, themselves backed by both logic and evidence. Most evenings, I recognized I was about as far from objective as I could be. From the moment I started taking daily notes, I believed Swan was guilty.

In seven days, county prosecutors Robert "Dusty" Deschamps III and Kirsten LaCroix painstakingly amassed the tremendous evidence linking Swan culpably to Ginny Hann on the night of her murder on February 28, 1997.

It was a high-profile case, an important one for Deschamps, currently the only serious candidate challenging Rep. Rick Hill for Montana's sole house seat. He left much of the questioning and cross-examining to LaCroix, saving the closing argument for himself.

From hair and carpet samples to DNA probabilities and testimony from the young woman's friends, Deschamps and LaCroix painted the scenario of Hann's demise, aggressively coloring the story of a sweet, teen-age girl who thought she was meeting friends at a party, but instead ended up meeting her fate.

"The defendant was untruthful about his contact with Ginny the night before her death," said LaCroix in her opening statement. The prosecutor re-counted the facts:

That fateful Friday, Ginny agreed to go to a party Swan, a former co-worker who was fired after she accused him of sexual harassment. Swan told her Jason Engel, a guy she liked, would be at the party. Ginny met Swan and some of his friends at the Kmart parking lot. Swan picked her up, dropped off the other friends, returned to his apartment and invited his upstairs neighbors to come down for a few drinks. Ginny, evidently, discovered that Engel wasn't coming.

The neighbors left Ginny and Swan alone in his apartment at around 2 a.m. Swan showed up 15 minutes late the next morning for his job at Lolo's Town Pump, where he was scheduled to start a shift at 6:30 a.m.

Just over three hours later, on Saturday, March 1, 1997, at 8:55 a.m., Montana Highway Patrolman Chris Schultz found Ginny's nearly-nude body in the middle of Blue Mountain Road. Her clothes were piled next to her; she had been dead for only a few hours.

Sheriff's Captain Jerry Crego interviewed Swan that evening. He maintained Ginny left his apartment by herself. Three days later, on Tuesday, March 4, Swan was arrested and charged with deliberate homicide. He pleaded innocent.

Hinting at the defense's strategies to come, the prosecution warned the jury. "Watch out for red herrings. Don't be distracted from the big picture."

On Monday, May 4-more than 14 months after the crime-testimony started in earnest as ominous smoke-filled skies filtered the sun's rays, leaving a muted light outside the courtroom windows. A list of witnesses, mostly young women, Ginny's friends, appeared and took the stand. And what they had to say was that Ginny Hann was afraid of Martin Swan.

One after the other, they swore to tell the truth, then described to jurors what Ginny was wearing the night she was murdered. They said that Swan picked Ginny up at the Kmart parking lot, dropped off three others then made his way back to his 55th Street apartment.

Co-workers and friends agreed Ginny was unnerved by both Swan and Ivan Chinikaylo, a fellow employee and a Russian immigrant who would figure heavily into the defense's case. Her manager Dennis Randels said that more than once Ginny asked him to follow her home at the end of her shift, just to be safe.

Ginny's best friend since the third grade, Jennifer Kulawinski, confirmed that Hann had a crush on Jason Engel, a co-worker at Taco Bell. The prosecution used Kulawinski's testimony to flesh out the theory that Swan lured Ginny to his apartment under the pretense that Engel would be there.

When Deschamps opened the brown grocery bags containing Ginny's clothes from the night she died, Kulawinski lost her composure.

Tears flowed as each article of clothing was unwrapped. Yes, she said, those are Ginny's dark blue wrangler jeans. Yes, that was the fitted blue and white stripe western shirt she was wearing before she left to meet Swan. Yes, those are her boots, and that purple coat was the only coat she owned.

Ginny, Kulawinski testified, told her Swan made advances toward her at work; she was afraid to complain. "He would walk around and put his arms on her shoulders," said Kulawinski. "She didn't appreciate it but she didn't want to say anything."

Others backed up this story. Rhonda Schwartz, Ginny's friend and co-worker, similarly testified that Hann was having problems with Swan. "She was afraid of Martin. She didn't want to be alone with him."

The defense attorneys did their best to suggest to the jury that Ginny wasn't afraid of Swan because she had agreed to meet him that night. As I considered this, I imagined myself her in place. I knew the lawyers had ignored a simple fact: Ginny was a girl with a crush. If there was even the remotest chance Jason might show, Ginny, like most teenagers, would have hung out with the devil himself.

By now, I was beginning to have nightmares about Swan. In my dreams, I was nice to him. Like Ginny, I had a hard time being rude, telling him to get lost. And so despite my martial arts black belt, despite the fact that I'm four inches taller than Ginny and weigh 20 pounds more, that I've acquired the self-confidence so many young girls lack, in my dreams I, too, felt helpless and pursued.

My dreams of helplessness grew after the prosecution asked Sarah Shinnaberry, Swan's cousin, to come down from the platform and stand next to Swan.

At 5 feet, weighing 98 pounds, Shinnaberry offered jurors a glimpse at the disparity in Swan and Ginny's sizes. It was profoundly disturbing. The top of Shinnaberry's head was well below Swan's shoulder and her petite frame looked all the smaller next to Swan's 300-pound bulk. How could a woman as tiny as Ginny have ever hoped to fight off such a large man?

I knew the prosecution thought Swan had strangled her, but looking at this mismatched pair facing the jurors, I suspected Swan's broad frame had covered her so completely that she had no room to struggle or scream. I believe she simply suffocated beneath him.

The defense attorneys, from the beginning, worked to cast one specific doubt in the jurors' minds: Had the Missoula County Sheriff's Department arrested the right man?

Whenever the opportunity arose, public defenders Larry Mansch and Mike McLaverty asked witnesses to confirm that another man, Ivan Chinikaylo, had also stalked her.

When it was the defense's turn to put witnesses on the stand, Mansch alternately offered the theory that David Wittenberg, an ex-boyfriend of Swan's aunt who is now in jail awaiting trial for making pipe bombs, might have been the one responsible for Hann's death. Or if not him, then a Ravalli County man, who at about the same time took a woman up Blue Mountain Road, produced a gun and demanded sex.

"Yes, she was with Martin Swan that night," Mansch said during his closing argument. "That does not a murder make."

From mid-trial on, DNA experts for prosecution and defense sparred over how likely it was that Swan was the one who left saliva on Ginny's breast. While Chris Basten, a statistician from North Carolina, said Swan was 19,000 times more likely than a random person to have left the saliva, William Shields, a zoologist at Syracuse University, took issue with Basten's calculations, whittling the odds down to only 81 times more likely.

The defense took only hours to put on its case, compared to the three days used by the prosecution. In the end, Mansch's protests that the cops nabbed the wrong man fell on deaf ears, and Shields' attack was not enough to impress the jury.

At 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday, May 12, the verdict was in.

Afterwards, juror John Bradford told the media the disagreement over the DNA number didn't sway him. With all the other evidence presented, the DNA was just one piece of the puzzle. In the jurors' minds, the fact that neither scientist could say Swan definitely had not been the one to leave the saliva was enough.

Despite my earlier confidence of Swan's guilt, by day three I was questioning my initial impressions. It is easy to see now how discordant testimonies and disjointed stories-a natural result of question-and-answer testimony-cast doubt in my mind. Without a plot to follow, facts became jumbled, connections were obscured.

The defense insisted that Ginny had picked up hairs and carpet fibers merely from being in Swan's apartment and car. And though no one saw Ginny drive away in her own car, Swan claimed she parked in a spot that wasn't visible from neighbors' windows. It was a convenient explanation. It was also possible.

My need to see the good in people conflicted with the evidence I saw. I wondered if, when the testimonies were finished, the jury would have as much difficulty finding an answer as I suspected I would.

Ultimately, it was hard to believe that the man whose back I had stared at for days had killed someone. For all his height and weight, he was unassuming at the defense table. He took copious notes. He never allowed any emotion but intense interest to pass over his face. He sometimes chatted with the media during breaks and he never showed frustration or anger.

I had never seen the cold, steel glint of a killer in his eyes. Could someone so calm and seemingly amicable have killed Ginny Hann?

When I heard forensic scientist Deb Hewitt tell jurors that it was curious Ginny had hair and fibers on her nude body and not on her clothes, my doubts disappeared. There was no way that could have happened unless Ginny had been nude in Swan's car. I could imagine Swan throwing her nude body on the floor of his car, then dumping the body on his way to work in Lolo at the gas station early that morning.

The evidence was undeniable.

And I understood why, when Deschamps addressed the jury for the last time, he abandoned the technical jargon, the statisticians' language, in favor of a plain-spoken closing. "I'm not interested in theories, I'm interested in the truth," he said. "You know in your hearts that Martin Swan's guilty. There isn't any reasonable doubt."

And there wasn't. The jury took less than four hours to determine Swan was guilty. After a barrage of evidence from the prosecution and a slew of defense questions meant to raise doubt among the jurors, Swan had been held accountable.

The jury left the courtroom first, then Swan, dark circles under his eyes, was handcuffed and led away. It took only moments for the courtroom to empty; in the silence, accented by the sound of air conditioners, it was hard to conjure all that had happened in just a few days. It was even harder to remember that this trial was one of many harsh stories this court room had and will bear witness to.

And still, I find myself wondering about Ginny. I can see how hard it might have been for her to say no to advances from Swan, to scream and kick and fight before it became all too clear that it was too late. Whether that is what happened, we may never know unless Swan tells.

And Swan, pending appeal, isn't talking.

Police found the body of 19-year-old Ginny Hann on the side of Blue Mountain Road on March 1, 1997. Photo courtesy of the Missoula County Clerk of Courts.

One of Ginny Hann's sisters and a friend pause outside the courtroom after the jury announced Swan's conviction. -Jeff Powers

Assistant county attorney Kirsten LaCroix watches as Capt. Jerry Crego handcuffs convicted murderer Martin Swan after the guilty verdict was announced. -Jeff Powers


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