Death of Jason Sweeney
|Born||Jason Keel Sweeney
Fishtown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
|Died||June 5, 2003|
Cause of death
Jason Keel Sweeney was a teenager from Fishtown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who at the age of 16 was murdered by four teenagers for his paycheck on May 30, 2003. The manner in which Sweeney was murdered, age of the teens involved, and the seeming indifference of the perpetrators received national media coverage.
Jason Sweeney worked for his father, who was a contractor in Pennsylvania doing construction. He had recently met a girl he liked, Justina Morley, a 15-year-old whom he had a date with on a Friday night. Unbeknownst to Sweeney, Morley was regularly engaging in sexual relations with two of the killers, Dominic Coia and Edward Batzig Jr., around the time of the attacks. Justina lured Sweeney to "the trails," a wooded area of Fishtown near the Delaware River, after promising him sex, where three male teenagers awaited, 16-year-old Edward Batzig Jr., Nicholas Coia, 16, and his brother Dominic, 17. Edward Batzig Jr., Sweeney's best friend since the fourth grade, took the first blow, striking Sweeney in the head 4 of 5 times. The three teenage boys pummeled Sweeney, primarily on his head and face, with a hatchet, a hammer and a rock until he was dead and then stole the $500 cash he earned from work. Sweeney's head was crushed and the only bone left undamaged was his left cheekbone. After they left the crime scene, they had a group hug, split the money and bought illegal drugs—heroin, marijuana and xanax—and then partied together.
Dominic Coia confessed in a court hearing that they were all involved in the murder of Sweeney. The police said the murder was planned days before. Part of the preparation of the murder was by listening to "Helter Skelter", a Beatles song, over forty times. Joshua Stabb, 18, a friend of Dominic Coia, said that the group had bragged about their plan to kill Sweeney by using Justina Morley as "bait". Stabb also said that Batzig knew that Sweeney would have his paycheck earnings on him on the day of the murder. The prosecutor asked Stabb about the teens' demeanor after the killing. Stabb said: "They seemed pretty fine." "In a way, happy." All of the four teens were drug addicts, but they were not high before they murdered Sweeney. One of the detectives had asked Dominic Coia if they were high during the killing. Coia's response was: "No, I was as sober as I am now, It is sick, isn't it?" Batzig, the best friend, told a detective how he hit Sweeney with the hatchet face four or five times. Batzig said, "Jason started begging for his life, but we just kept hitting him." Batzig also said that Sweeney looked at him during the beating and said "Please stop, I'm bleeding." after that he hit Jason again with the axe.
Justina Morley claimed that after she started smoking marijuana at the age of 10, she also started taking prescription pills and snorting cocaine. April Frederick, Morley's mother, said her daughter started cutting her wrists at the age of 10. She was also hospitalized for threatening suicide and self-mutilation in 2002. She was once admitted to Friends Hospital for cutting her wrists, knees and thighs, taking pills and displaying a suicide poem, which she had penned, on her door. Morley told her mother she would commit suicide if she did not take her out of the hospital. Her mother took her out, going against the hospital's advice. It was also noted she was expelled from the eighth grade, which she repeated at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School instead of the public school she was attending. A psychiatrist hired by the defense team, William Russell, said the reason she began sexual activity at an early age "was an attempt at validation of self-worth". She testified that she had sex with both Nicholas Coia and Batzig in exchange for heroin just a few days before they murdered Sweeney.
Justina Morley's attorneys explained to the judge that the girl had suffered through depression, suicide attempts and substance abuse in order to get her a juvenile court trial. Psychiatrist William Russell explained to the court how Morley attempted suicide twice by overdosing on pills only the year before the killing. Morley's attorney argued she was the least culpable and if tried as a juvenile, she could get treatment and live a productive life. The Assistant District Attorney argued that Morley was an important part of the plot in Sweeney's murder and she had treatment before, to no avail. If tried in a juvenile court, Morley could have been free of court supervision by the age of 21. The judge agreed with the District Attorney and ordered her to be tried as an adult for murder. However, Justina Morley pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in exchange for her testimony and was sentenced to 17 1/2 to 35 years in prison.
During the trial of the Coia brothers and Batzig, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in another case that defendants under the age of 18 could not be executed. Dominic, who was 14 days away from his 18th birthday at the time of the murder, was not in jeopardy of the death penalty because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Therefore, the Coia brothers and Batzig were all facing life sentences without parole, if convicted of first-degree murder. Dominic Coia, Nicholas Coia and Edward Batzig were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy, robbery and possessing an instrument of crime. All were tried together as adults.
Jailhouse letters of the defendants were read during the trial to understand their behavior and to learn who was mostly culpable, if anyone. It was argued by the defense attorneys for the boys, that Morley was the manipulator and led the boys to commit the murder of Sweeney. In one of her writings to Dominic Coia, she wrote: "So you say I'm manipulative, and yes, I believe I am in ways. I'm persuasively manipulative, and I think I'm pretty good at it, too. I enjoy dragging people along." She went on to say: ". . . Tell me you don't enjoy these gullible humans. It's funny how easy it is to persuade them into lies." Expressing no remorse at all in one letter, she stated: "I am guilty. But I still don't feel guilty for anything. . . . I still enjoy my flashbacks. They give me comfort. I love them." But Morley testified that she does feel remorse for the slaying of Sweeney and that she only wrote such things so that she would be accepted by the guys. But the prosecution used Morley's letters also and implied that she was exactly what she called herself in one of her letters: "I'm a cold-blooded [expletive] death-worshiping bitch who survives by feeding off the weak and lonely. I lure them, and then I crush them." This was also written to Dominic Coia.
The defense attorneys for the boys agreed that each of the teen boys played a part in Sweeney's murder, but they tried to imply since they were all drug addicts that they did not have a real intent to kill. This was done in the hope the jury would be convinced to convict the teens of third-degree murder instead of first-degree murder, which was what the prosecutors were seeking. But the boys' confessions which were read in court did not help. District Attorney, Jude Conroy, read part of his confession in court: "We just kept hitting and hitting him. . . . We took Sweeney's wallet and split up the money, and we partied beyond redemption." Dominic Coia had told a detectives: "It was like we were all happy [with] what we did."
Verdict and sentencing
The Coia brothers and Batzig Jr. were convicted for murder, conspiracy, robbery and possession of an instrument of crime. In May 2005, the three juveniles were sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder, plus 22 1/2 to 45 years for conspiracy, robbery and possessing an instrument of crime. None of the teens showed any remorse for the murder. Paul Sweeney, the victim's father, addressed Dominic Coia and told him to look at him "with your evil eyes". Dominic Coia responded: "I never thought I had evil eyes, but I guess I do. And I'm cool." One of the defense attorneys argued with the judge to try to get the boys a sentence with parole to no avail. The judge said: "There is a level of inhumanity that exists in these facts. This was a totally depraved act."
Paul and Dawn Sweeney, Jason Sweeney's parents, set up the Jason Keel Sweeney Foundation, in memory of their son, to fund a full scholarship for the Valley Forge Military School, the school of their son's dreams. Jason Sweeney had wanted to attend the military school to become a Navy SEAL. He was accepted into the school but could not afford the tuition. 
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