Sunday, April 6, 1997
Clara Swart's final tribute
from her sons

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It must be the worst kind of nightmare.

Every day for two weeks, Clara Swart's sons listen to the details of their mother's murder.

Less than 15 feet, two rows of wooden pews and a low railing separate them from the man who killed her. Jessie James Cowans hunkers down at the defense table, looking like an overweight bear, dragged in from the woods, hosed off, brushed and dressed in people clothes for the show.

There is, however, no show.

The system at work

Clermont County Judge Robert Ringland doesn't play to the cameras. Nor does defense attorney, Michael Kelly. A model of capability and hard work, Mr. Kelly is a textbook illustration of the chapter of law that says ''everybody in this country has a right to the best possible defense.'' Even if you're guilty.

Even if you've done it before.

Mr. Cowans was convicted in 1978 of strangling a man in a wheelchair. He was 17 years old at the time. Paroled after 11 years, he wound up back in prison two years later on a parole violation. He appeared before the parole board four times before gaining his freedom again in May of 1996.

In August of that year he murdered the mother of David, Michael and Timothy Swart, ''three of the nicest people you'll ever meet, class guys,'' according to Clermont County Assistant Prosecutor Daniel ''Woody'' Breyer. ''These three boys are a reflection of their parents, in my personal opinion.''

It is all too personal in that courtroom, sometimes, as witnesses unfold the story of the 69-year-old woman, independent and active, still grieving for her husband who died of cancer that April. In his summation, Mr. Breyer described Mrs. Swart's last seconds of life, shoved up against a refrigerator, a purse strap wrapped around her neck. Gasping for air.

This was one of the moments of high drama. There weren't many of these. Most of it was hours of bone-numbing detail of the investigation, the physical evidence. But like shards of glass, horrible intimate moments occasionally pierce the room.

A former cell mate testified that the defendant told him the things taken from Mrs. Swart - a clown figurine, a toy car, some jewelry and a jewelry box - ''was junk and he wished he'd taken the earrings and wedding ring off the old lady.''

At that, tears glide slowly down the face of Diane Swart, David's wife.

Mr. Kelly carefully spent 15 minutes convincing the jury that the witness is a scumbag, which they could clearly see already. They just had to decide whether they believed him. And whether they believed the fingerprints found inside Mrs. Swart's home. And the discovery of her possessions at Mr. Cowans' house.

The bear growled

Last week, the jury deliberated less than one day before convicting Jessie Cowans. When the verdict was read in court, the bear growled. Then roared. He stood up on his hind legs and raged.

The Swart family sat quietly, as they had all through this ordeal of violence and indignity. Three sons, their wives and children, hands locked together. No press conferences. No public ranting at a parole board that set this beast loose. No second-guessing the police or the prosecutor.

David, the middle son, allowed me one question: Why did you show up in court every day?

''Because she was my mother. I was there for her.''

He said he wanted jurors to have some feeling for the family. He said he wanted to show support for the law enforcement officials and prosecutors, ''and, of course, my family needed to be there for each other.'' He said I could ask him some more questions after the jury comes back next week with a sentence. He doesn't want to interfere with the process, which he says he greatly respects.

Actually, I thought I probably knew as much as I needed to know about the three boys raised by Clara Swart in that little house in Monroe Township.

Good sons. Brave men. Their mother would be proud.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.