WEST CHESTER — A Main Line accountant accused of strangling his estranged girlfriend in the Easttown home they shared has been found guilty of the crime, one rarely contested in court in domestic violence cases.
The jury hearing the case involving John Michael Swirsding in Common Pleas Judge William P. Mahon’s courtroom deliberated a little over five hours before returning with the verdict Wednesday, finding him guilty of felony strangulation, simple assault, and terroristic threats.
Swirsding, 47, who now lives in Ardmore, was returned to Chester County Prison following the verdict. He has been held there since June, when Mahon increased his bail after hearing that he had failed to report for trial and had left the state without notifying bail authorities.
It was learned that while Swirsding was in Florida, he was arrested on June 17 and charged by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office with theft, trespassing, and public intoxication, reportedly after a confrontation at a Melbourne, Fla., strip club.
He is due to be sentenced by Mahon on the assault charges later this year.
According to the case laid out by Assistant District Attorneys Ty Broderson and Alexis Shaw, who led the prosecution, as well as court documents in the case, Swirsding was arrested by Easttown police on May 3, 2018, after they were called to his home on Waterloo Avenue in Berwyn by a neighbor who was awakened by shouting coming from the house next door.
Swirsding had apparently believed he had been locked out of his home after a night of drinking, and broken into the house by breaking a window on a back door. In the process, he cut himself and began bleeding all over the floor and walls.
He went upstairs to confront his then-girlfriend, Kelly Donahue, who was sleeping in a guest bedroom. The couple had been in the process of ending their relationship, but she was still residing at the Waterloo Avenue house.
“You’re getting a lesson this time,” Broderson quoted Swirsding as shouting. The threat was heard by the neighbor, Brian Walker, who testified Tuesday, before he called police.
Swirsding allegedly broke down the locked door to the guest room, and attacked Donahue, who was lying in bed, straddling her body and pressing her neck with his forearm. At some point he put both hands on her throat and started choking her until she could not breathe.
In her testimony, Donahue said she struggled to get Swirsding off of her, but that he held her down with his arms. When he put his hands around her throat, she said she could not breathe but did not know how long that lasted.
“He said this was all my fault, and that he was going to teach me a lesson,” Donahue said under questioning by Shaw. “I was fearful for my life. I did not know when he was going to stop.”
In his opening, Broderson told the jurors that to prove the crime of strangulation, the prosecution must show only that the victim’s ability to breathe was cut off, or that blood flow to the brain was halted. There is no time limit on how long the choking occurs, and no need to show any physical injury.
Having been alerted by the 9-1-1 call, Easttown police officers were able to enter Swirsding’s home and break up the assault. After Donahue told one officer that she had not been able to breath, Swirsding was taken into custody and charged.
When questioned at the police station, Swirsding refused to give his side of the story. However, he cautioned the officers not to release him, “because if he gets out of jail he is going to teach (his girlfriend) a lesson.”
Asking a police officer whether his girlfriend was dead, Swirsding allegedly told the officer that someone “should kill her.”
The crime of strangulation as a standalone offense has been part of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code only since 2016, when legislation that originated in Chester County passed the General Assembly. A second-degree felony, strangulation is punishable by a maximum prison term of five to 10 years in state prison. Previously, although victims of domestic assaults had reported being strangled by their attackers, the act was itself was not treated as a separate crime.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Michelle Frei, who was instrumental in getting the bill creating the offense taken up by former state Rep. Becky Corbin of East Brandywine, said Tuesday that even though the charge is regularly filed now by police in domestic violence cases, it is rarely challenged in court. She estimated that Swirsding is only the second defendant in the county who has taken a case involving the charge to trial.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.