‘Just stunned.’ Ex-wife testifies against Tri-Cities judge at domestic violence trial

·6 min read

The ex-wife of a Tri-Cities Superior Court judge said her relationship was broken even before February 2021.

Through moments of tears, Stephanie Barnard told a jury Tuesday that her then husband, Judge Sam Swanberg, used intimidation, condescension and occasional violence on her.

Barnard was one of two witnesses to testify for the prosecution in Swanberg’s trial Tuesday in Franklin County District Court. He’s charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault with a domestic violence allegation.

The charges stem from two incidents, the first on Feb. 7, 2021 when he allegedly pushed her hard enough to leave bruises and the second, a day later, when he dragged her out of a bedroom.

“Those are the two crimes that you are here to make a decision about,” Assistant Attorney General Laura Twitchell told the jury during opening statements. “Now you’re going to hear about a relationship that was clearly falling apart. ... You’re going to hear about two people, a lot of feelings and a lot of emotions, and neither of them is beyond reproach.”

Swanberg’s attorney Scott Johnson said Barnard suffered a series of violent meltdowns brought on by the ending of their marriage. He told jurors that Swanberg had a reasonable fear that she would hurt him or destroy his property.

He argued that a lackluster investigation by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office didn’t pay attention to other witnesses or the larger context of the couple’s floundering relationship.

“What you have in this case is a series of half truths and accusations by an ex-spouse without any corroboration other than someone saying it happened with no proper police investigation leading directly to domestic violence charges.”

Stephanie Barnard, the ex-wife of Judge Sam Swanberg, holds a photo up for the jury showing a bruise on her upper leg she says were caused by Swanberg during a physical altercation.
Stephanie Barnard, the ex-wife of Judge Sam Swanberg, holds a photo up for the jury showing a bruise on her upper leg she says were caused by Swanberg during a physical altercation.

Leading up to trial

Allegations of abuse came out in January when Barnard filed a declaration as part of Swanberg’s ex-girlfriend’s request for a no-contact order for harassment.

The ex-girlfriend, Sila Salas, dated Swanberg for about five months while she was working at the Franklin County Clerk’s Office. She said he refused to accept the relationship had ended in November, and sent her several messages and tried to talk with her.

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Barnard’s declaration in support of Salas claimed three decades of abuse, and included pictures of him dragging her out of a room and a photo of a bruise.

While the charges against him are pending, Swanberg has not been handling court cases in Benton and Franklin counties since January.

The judge said in early January that he has no intention of stepping down, but pending the outcome of his legal troubles, the other judges voted to remove him from his courtroom duties.

Swanberg is one of seven Superior Court judges and three court commissioners who handle civil and felony criminal cases, divorces, paternity and custody issues in the two counties.

Jurors haven’t been told that Swanberg is a sitting Superior Court judge because it might influence their opinion of him.

Feb. 7 confrontation

The alleged attack on Feb. 7, 2021, happened after Swanberg drove Barnard and her daughter home from their church bishop’s home in Pasco.

The two had returned to the Tri-Cities from a weekend trip to Idaho and had borrowed a truck from the church leader.

At the time, Barnard and Swanberg slept in separate bedrooms in the same house as they worked through their divorce. They’d been married 33 years and have six children.

Barnard works for the Tri-Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce and is the front runner after last week’s primary in a race for seat in the state House representing the 8th District.

On Tuesday, she told the jury that she noticed photographs were missing from a wall and noticed some pictures missing from the other rooms.

Then in her bedroom, she noticed that not everything was in the right place.

She brushed her teeth, changed into her pajamas and walked downstairs to the small bedroom where Swanberg was on the bed in the dark.

The former wife of Benton Franklin Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg submitted these photos in a court filing claiming he dragged her out of a room against her will in February 2021. She filed the document after his girlfriend filed a harassment claim against him.
The former wife of Benton Franklin Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg submitted these photos in a court filing claiming he dragged her out of a room against her will in February 2021. She filed the document after his girlfriend filed a harassment claim against him.

She turned on the light and began questioning him.

“I said, ‘Where’s my stuff?’ ... I said, ‘You don’t get to take whatever you want,’” she testified.

After saying it twice and walking to the side of the bed, Barnard said Swanberg jolted up and shoved her across the room.

“And said, ‘Shut the eff up,’” she recounted. “I was just stunned and in pain.”

When he pushed her, she hit her head and her leg and had the wind knocked out of her. She said it took about 10 minutes before she could get up.

Swanberg’s attorney questioned whether she went downstairs that night looking to start a fight.

“You could have stopped at that point and said, ‘Oh, he’s sleeping. We’re going to talk about this tomorrow, right?”

While Barnard agreed she could have waited to ask him, she denied that she poked him in the face or was yelling at him. She also refuted that he was still lying down when he pushed her.

Yakima County District Court Judge Donald Engel listens to arguments about evidence from Laura Twitchell, assistant state Attorney General.
Yakima County District Court Judge Donald Engel listens to arguments about evidence from Laura Twitchell, assistant state Attorney General.

The next day

There were three alleged confrontations between Swanberg and Barnard on Feb. 8.

The first happened in the morning at a storage unit they were sharing. Barnard told the jury she was pulling items out that she wanted to make sure to protect.

As she was loading a bag of golf clubs into the car, Swanberg pulled out a cellphone and started recording her. Barnard became angry.

A video showed her swinging her hand at Swanberg. She said she was trying to knock the camera from Swanberg’s hand.

The second assault charge stems from another altercation when they returned home.

Barnard said she was documenting items around the house using her camera when she went into her ex-husband’s room. She took pictures of some of the items.

She was in the room when Swanberg came in and he grabbed her by the arm and started forcing her out, she told the jury.

Barnard couldn’t remember if he forced her down or she tripped as he pushed her, but she ended up on the floor.

A video shown to jurors showed Swanberg grabbing her by the ankles and pulling her out of the bedroom.

When Johnson questioned her, she denied that he tried to stop her from entering, and that she had voluntarily collapsed on the floor.

He also questioned Barnard’s presence of mind to hit record on the camera during the scuffle.

Later the same day, Swanberg and Barnard were arguing in the kitchen when she dumped a can of protein powder over his head, she said.

Benton Franklin Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg says his ex-wife threw protein powder on him during a confrontation in their home in February 2021. He sent this photo to his friend and attorney.
Benton Franklin Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg says his ex-wife threw protein powder on him during a confrontation in their home in February 2021. He sent this photo to his friend and attorney.

Series of clashes

Barnard described two other clashes in December 2020. One when she threw a piece of exercise equipment through a mirror when the judge was working out in a garage.

The other happened when she threatened to smash his car with a metal rod. She told the jury that she hit his arm but denied hitting Swanberg in the head during the clash.

Johnson asked Barnard if Swanberg had retaliated during any of the other incidents, and she said he hadn’t.

Defense attorney Scott Johnson uses computer presentation for his opening statement to the jury Tuesday morning during the domestic violence trial of Judge Sam Swanberg, a Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge. Yakima County District Court Judge Donald Engel is presiding at the trial being held in Franklin County.
Defense attorney Scott Johnson uses computer presentation for his opening statement to the jury Tuesday morning during the domestic violence trial of Judge Sam Swanberg, a Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge. Yakima County District Court Judge Donald Engel is presiding at the trial being held in Franklin County.

The prosecution ended its case Tuesday after Franklin County Sheriff’s Sgt. Marcus Conner took the stand.

Swanberg is expected to testify in his own defense on Wednesday.