Justine's parents, Steve and Heidi Swartz, stand outside the Orange County Circuit Court during a 2011 hearing.
Justine dances with her father, Stephen Swartz, at her May 28, 2006 wedding to Eric Abshire. Less than six months later, she was dead.
After declaring his love for his late wife and his innocence in her death, a defiant Eric Abshire, convicted in October of killing Justine Swartz Abshire, spoke aloud in court. It was the first time the 37-year-old made a statement since entering his not guilty plea last March.
"Justice for Justine will never happen," said Abshire. Minutes later, Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton confirmed the jury-recommended life sentence for the first-degree murder.
"You demanded trial by jury," said Bouton. "We provided you with the jury."
Although their service ended with the October 25 conviction, at least two jurors attended the January 12 sentencing hearing.
"I was here to make sure the sentence we recommended was upheld," explained juror Michelle Hooper, who says she's had no second thoughts. "We all felt very strongly about it."
Before the sentencing began, Abshire's attorney, Charles "Buddy" Weber, unsuccessfully moved to have the verdict tossed, claiming that the medical evidence hadn't explained how Justine died on November 2-3, 2006, the night Abshire claimed to have found her as the ostensible victim of a hit-and-run on Taylorsville Road near Barboursville.
At trial, prosecution witnesses offered evidence suggesting Justine been killed elsewhere by Abshire, who'd staged a hit-and-run in order to collect as much as $1.5 million in insurance money. Weber, however, again disputed that testimony and repeated the crux of his defense argument: that an accident was not just plausible but consistent with the facts.
As he repeated the litany of injuries Justine sustained the night of her death, including broken bones, lacerated organs, and wounds to her head, Justine's mother, Heidi Swartz, left the courtroom sobbing.
"This is the hardest day for me since the day she died," Swartz said later. "There's nothing else I can do for her now."
Justine's parents and her sister offered victim impact statements detailing the devastation wrought by Abshire, not just in the murder, but in his allegedly controlling behavior.
"For the seven years before she was killed by Eric, I watched my sister's life start to fade," said Lauren Swartz, who paused periodically to compose herself.
"She became quiet, withdrawn, she became poor, she became scared. She became the victim of domestic violence, which I saw with my own eyes... In hindsight," Swartz said, "I feel like I watched her die."
"Today is the last day I face the man who murdered my daughter," said anguished mother Heidi Swartz on the stand. "My sentence will never leave me."
Justine's father, Steve Swartz, went beyond his own grief, suggesting Abshire's life sentence was universally beneficial.
"I believe in my heart that there's not a single person in this room or that knew Justine or that knows Eric who won't be better off if he's in prison for the rest of his life and can't do any more damage," he said.
That, however, was not the sentiment expressed by Allison Crawford, the mother of Abshire's two daughters, who was the only witness to speak on behalf of the convict and who read letters from each of their daughters expressing pain, grief, and anger at what they perceive as unjustified persecution of one half of a loving couple.
"Anyone around them could see that they loved each other," wrote Abshire's 17-year-old daughter of her father and Justine. Describing Abshire as a "good person" who taught her "honesty, hard work, and respect," she railed in her letter against the "glorified witch hunt" that led to her father's conviction, and criticized the Swartzes, who have filed a civil suit against Abshire, his brother, his cousin, and Crawford for being "punitive and manipulative."
"This situation has destroyed my family's life," wrote the teen. "I'll never able to get back the things I've lost in the last five years."
While the older daughter was not present during the hearing, Abshire's 12-year-old daughter entered the courtroom in time to hear her own letter read by her mother.
"I remember Justine, and I remember the things that were important to her," she wrote. "She would want the truth, and she would not want everyone to turn against my dad."
Anger on Abshire's side of the courtroom also became apparent during a courtroom recess, when Crawford's mother, Jaye Morris, sitting a foot away from this reporter, with whom she is acquainted, expressed disgust for the Hook's coverage, calling it full of "gossip and lies." She said she would empty Hook newspaper stands and discard the papers whenever there was a story about the case.
"It doesn't say 'take only one,'" Morris said.
Following the hearing, Morris quickly left the courthouse. Reached by phone and asked to relay a message to her mother, Crawford bristles.
"God have mercy on your soul," says Crawford.
At the hearing's conclusion, Abshire, handcuffed, shackled, and dressed in an orange jumpsuit from the Central Virginia Regional Jail, was led from the courtroom, where he'll return on February 23 for a hearing on a separate perjury charge stemming from the investigation.
Outside court, Abshire's father, Barboursville resident Edward Abshire, recalled receiving a middle-of-the-night call from his son the night of Justine's death and rushing to his side.
"He was crying," the elder Abshire recounted, expressing his continued belief in his son's innocence. "I hope they keep investigating this."
The younger Abshire has 30 days to file an appeal, something attorney Weber informed the court he plans to do.
For the Swartz family, any relief from the life sentence is overshadowed by the ongoing pain.
"Someone once said, 'the murderer always gets away with it," says Heidi Swartz, noting that Abshire's incarceration does nothing to undo the crime.
"My daughter," she says, "is still dead."