COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A judge has sentenced 24-year-old Joseph Swearingen to 15 years in prison in connection with a 2018 crash that critically injured a Lexington woman.
Megan Diffee was driving south on U.S. Highway 1 toward I-20 when another car driven by Swearingen, according to witnesses, was headed north in the turning lane at more than 60 miles per hour before striking Diffee’s vehicle in a head-on collision.
According to Diffee’s family, she suffered several injuries including multiple skull fractures, damage in both carotid arteries, a broken arm, bruised lungs, two broken legs, a broken ankle and a broken foot.
Diffee is still recovering from those injuries.
On Tuesday, Swearingen pleaded guilty to Felony DUI with great bodily injury as well as possession of cocaine.
Following his plea, the court heard victim impact statements from Diffee, her husband Brandon and her father, David Larson.
Each described what the past 14 months have been like for their family, as Diffee continues to adapt to her new normal, unable to do many of the routine tasks she was once able to do.
Diffee’s husband, Brandon, witnessed the crash. He was driving a couple of cars behind his wife, both on their way to a friend’s soccer game.
“As we neared the speed limit of 45 miles per hour, I noticed a vehicle speeding down the turn lane,” he said. “I didn’t have time to think about how strange that was because suddenly and forcefully, that car swerved across the line and slammed directly into Megan’s car.”
He told the judge about rushing to his wife’s aid, seeing her seemingly lifeless body slumped over in the driver’s seat, unconscious.
“My heart stops and my chest tightens as I ran from my car screaming her name over and over again,” he said. “She was bleeding from her head and barely breathing. Her legs are completely crushed, there are bone fragments and blood pouring out of her kneecap and her right ankle is completely twisted around.”
He said he wasn’t allowed to see his wife for more than 10 hours after arriving at the hospital, eventually getting a chance to see her.
“Her face, so terribly swollen, she was nearly unrecognizable to me, her father,” Larson said. “Her skull fractured in so many pieces, her ears stuffed with gauze to help stop the blood that was leaking from her ear canals.”
For the next several weeks, Diffee underwent multiple surgeries to address her injuries before being moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. It’s the first memory Diffee has of the entire ordeal, unable to remember anything about the day of the crash.
“All I remember is going to bed the night before just like any normal night,” she said.
Months of surgeries and rehab have followed, as has the pain and frustration her family said they have endured.
“We made such an innocent choice that Saturday morning,” Brandon Diffee said. “The defendant made a much different choice that sentenced Megan to a life of chronic pain, disability, fear and heavy loss she will never be free from.”
Diffee, her husband, and her father, all asked Judge Frank Addy for the maximum sentence possible, 15 years in prison.
Swearingen apologized to the Diffee family, telling the judge he’s been an addict since he was 12 years old and needs treatment.
“I’m here today pleading guilty because I want to provide them with closure, I want to accept responsibility and I hope that one day they’ll be able to forgive me,” Swearingen said.
His mother, Gabby Swearingen, spoke on his behalf, telling the court about his long battle with drug addiction and mental health issues, asking the judge to require inpatient treatment as part of her son’s punishment.
“Not only is he fighting the demons, he lives with the sadness and shame with what his actions and choices have done to Megan and her family,” she said.
The Diffee’s said they were stunned when the judge handed down the maximum sentence, but also found an overwhelming sense of relief, feeling as if the punishment is justice, they said.
During the hearing, Swearingen could be seen rolling his eyes and scoffing as the prosecutor laid out the facts of the case for the judge. Later, as victim impact statements were being read, he could be seen nodding off, his eyes closing and his head falling to his chest.
The husband and wife said forgiveness is a process and they are not ready to forgive Swearingen for his actions yet.
“If I believed one shred of truth in that, he feels any shred of sorrow, then maybe I would consider accepting it, but based on how he acted in court…no,” Megan Diffee said about his apology in court.
Swearingen’s guilty plea to possession of cocaine was suspended, meaning once he is released from his 15-year sentence, he’ll serve four years of probation for the drug charge.
Diffee underwent her latest surgery just a few weeks ago, as doctors worked to correct double vision in her left eye. She hopes it is the last surgery, at least for a while.
“We are very grateful for everybody that has loved us, supported us and prayed for us,” Brandon Diffee said. “We feel it all the time and we feel your love and support all the time.”
To follow Megan’s recovery, visit the family’s blog at https://bit.ly/30RJm9G.