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Stepfather's trial begins in toddler's death

Graphic autopsy images of 2-year-old Jeremiah Swafford flashed in a courtroom on Wednesday as testimony began in the trial a Cleveland County man charged with the beating death of his stepson in 2009.

Diagrams and photos were used to illustrate experts' descriptions of injuries on the toddler's body.

Dwight Stacy Justice was charged with first-degree murder and felony child abuse in the high-profile case. The boy's death on Feb. 14, 2009, sparked anger across the region, with many criticizing both the family and authorities. The boy's relatives said DSS had ample opportunity to remove the boy from a dangerous situation.

Jeremiah's mother, Kathy Lynn Swafford, also faces first-degree murder and felony child abuse charges and will be tried in March. She may be called to testify in her husband's trial, Justice's lawyer said.

In opening statements Wednesday, Assistant Cleveland County District Attorney Bill Young said Swafford and Justice had been married two or three days before the toddler's death, but had been living together for several months in a Shelby apartment.

Living with them and Jeremiah was Justice's eight-year-old son. On the night of Feb. 12, 2009, Young said the mother and stepfather found Jeremiah OK in bed. The next morning, Justice took his son to school, came home and fell asleep watching TV.

"By lunchtime he (Jeremiah) had suffered severe head injuries and injuries on other parts of his body," Young told the jury. "The defendant and Swafford waited a time period before calling 911."

According to Young, "there has been no confession from anyone. This is a circumstantial case. There were only two people there when this boy suffered the fatal injuries."

Justice's lawyer, Ted Cummings of Hickory, said there were two occasions during the time period in question when only one person was in the apartment with Jeremiah. Justice had been away doing laundry that evening and the next morning had taken his son to school, stopping at a fast-food restaurant afterwards.

Cummings also told the jury "you may hear evidence that this injury could have been partially the result of an accident and that no one is at fault."

Cummings said that, at the close of evidence, it will be clear that "This man is not responsible for Jeremiah's death."

Dr. Thomas Owens, a forensic pathologist with the Mecklenburg Medical Examiner's Office, performed the autopsy and testified that Jeremiah died from blunt force head trauma resulting in brain swelling.

The boy had a six-inch fracture on his head and smaller fracture running parallel to it, said Owens.

He testified Jeremiah could have been hit with an object or "dropped or banged into an object. Either way, it would have required a "significant amount of force."