COLUMBIA, SC — At its worst, the deal gave a man a minimum sentence for a heinous crime.
At its best, it ended a 357-day search for a beloved Northeast Richland teenager.
The plea deal that gave Freddie Grant a 30-year prison sentence for kidnapping and killing15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson has triggered a mix of outrage and understanding in the community. Grant, 53, was sentenced Wednesday under a negotiated deal after he led investigators to the wooded area where he had buried the teen.
Anger over the deal comes from those already upset over problems they see in the criminal justice system that allows repeat offenders back on the streets with low jail bonds and light sentences.
That was evident Saturday during a justice rally at the State House when Chandra Cleveland-Jennings, a private investigator, earned applause after she expressed frustration over the sentence.
“Now, he gets 30 years of full medication and three meals a day,” Cleveland-Jennings said. “I don’t about you, but that burns my skin.”
The peace with the plea deal comes from those who understand why Richland County sheriff’s investigators placed a priority on finding Gabrielle.
If there’s anyone in town who understands the importance of that, it is the family of Dail Dinwiddie, who vanished from Five Points in 1992 at the age of 23. She has never been found.
Her family followed Gabrielle’s case, identifying with her mother’s uncertainty, fear, hope and heartbreak.
“This fellow was never going to give up where he buried that child or what had happened to that child,” Dan Dinwiddie, Dail’s father, said. “As long as he got a lengthy incarceration, that was the right thing to do.”
Gabrielle vanished from her mother’s home in the wee hours of Aug. 18, 2012. Grant was identified as a suspect almost immediately, but he never cooperated with Richland County sheriff’s investigators. He was charged in September on a federal ammunition charge and then in February with a state kidnapping charge.
By the time Grant pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping Wednesday in Richland County Circuit Court, negotiations over a plea deal had been ongoing for eight months, including while he was being held at the Lexington County Detention Center awaiting trial on the ammunition charge, and after he was convicted and moved to a Kentucky prison.
Grant’s public defender, Fielding Pringle, last fall first approached Lott about whether he would be receptive to a plea deal in exchange for Grant leading investigators to Gabbiee.
Lott called 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and suggested they hear what Pringle had to offer.
Johnson said Lott told him it was unlikely investigators would find the teen without Grant’s cooperation.
“They had looked high and low,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘We will continue to search diligently.’ But it was going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to find her any time soon.”
Johnson told the sheriff he had to think about it. Ultimately, he agreed.
While Johnson and Lott would not say what the original offer entailed, they said it was unacceptable because they wanted Grant to serve a minimum of 30 years in prison for the crime, even though he was already serving 17 years in Kentucky.
“They gave us an outrageous number that we would never accept,” Lott said. “We were at 30 years from the beginning, and we would never change the 30 years.”
They were adamant about 30 years because that is the minimum sentence for someone convicted of murder in South Carolina, Johnson said.
“Obviously, the defense’s job is to try to mitigate for their client,” Johnson said. “The issue with that is any number that was less than 30 would not have been murder. That really is the bottom line. That wouldn’t have been acceptable.”
Throughout the case, Pringle has declined to comment on it. In court, she described the negotiations as a “long and arduous process.”
Talks about a plea continued off and on for months, but neither party was willing to budge, Lott said.
Then, sheriff’s investigators caught a break in June when a delivery truck driver found Gabrielle’s cell phone outside a Myrtle Beach Piggly Wiggly. They were able to place Grant’s 27-year-old daughter, Dominique Grant, in the area around the time the phone was discovered.
Lott and his investigators decided to use Dominique Grant’s arrest to leverage a deal with her father.
Before making overtures to Grant and his attorney, though, Lott and Johnson needed buy-in from Gabrielle’s parents.
They invited Gabrielle’s mother, Elvia Swainson, to a meeting at the solicitor’s office, and Gabrielle’s father, Alvin Thompson, joined by conference call from his home in Virginia, Johnson said.
Thompson supported a plea deal from the beginning. But Swainson needed time, Johnson said.
The teen’s mother went home and prayed. She consulted with her pastors at Right Direction Church International, Johnson said.
The next day, she agreed to support a plea negotiation.
Still, Swainson believed her daughter would be found alive.
“She never, ever gave up hope,” Johnson said.
The deal meant Grant would lead investigators to Gabrielle’s body in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence and his daughter’s release. The day after he pointed out the grave, Dominique Grant’s charge of being an accessory to a felony was dropped.
In accepting the plea deal, Judge Robert Hood, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, said he also had to think long and hard before approving it. “I know negotiations like this are hard, and they weigh on everybody involved,” Hood said in court.
As part of the deal, Grant cannot appeal his case. He also will not be eligible for parole.
He soon will be returned to a federal penitentiary in Kentucky to finish his 17-year sentence on the ammunition charge. After that, Grant will be transferred to the S.C. Department of Corrections to begin his 30 years.
Since Grant is 53, he would be 100 when his time behind bars is complete. His age helped Lott and Johnson accept a minimum sentence.
“He’s never getting out of jail,” Lott said.
Sunday memorial for Gabrielle Swainson
If you go:
Gabrielle Swainson’s memorial service begins at 6 p.m. Sunday at Right Direction Church International, 3506 Broad River Road. The service will be broadcast live at www.rightdirection.info.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.