A Memphis man pleaded guilty Monday afternoon in Hardin County to two counts of vehicular homicide after a 2020 boating collision on Pickwick Lake resulted in the deaths of a man and his 6-year-old daughter.
Matthew Scott Swearengen, 34, was originally charged in the Aug. 15, 2020 incident with four felony counts of vehicular homicide, two felony counts of aggravated assault, felony failure to report a boating accident in which the operator knew or should have known someone died, and misdemeanor boating under the influence.
At today’s plea hearing, Assistant District Attorney General Morgan Reynolds said Swearengen was operating a Sea Doo personal watercraft when he collided with David Carter, 40, and his 6-year-old daughter Olivia, killing them both.
She added that the investigation by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency after the deadly collision showed that Swearengen’s blood alcohol level tested at .127, and that he “did not stop at the scene; he had to be tracked down later by TWRA officers.”
In Tennessee, the legal presumption of alcohol intoxication level is .08.
Circuit Court Judge J. Brent Bradberry accepted Swearengen’s plea on the first two counts of vehicular homicide at the Hardin County jail courtroom and dismissed the remaining six original charges.
Swearengen is sentenced to serve 12 years in prison on each of the two counts, with the sentences to run concurrently, and no fine. As a Range 1 offender he must serve at least 30% before he is eligible for parole.
His driver’s license is also revoked for three years, and his vessel operating privileges are revoked for 10 years.
Had Swearengen been found guilty of all eight original charges, Bradberry said he could have been sentenced to a maximum total of $78,000 in fines and 50 years, 11 months and 29 days imprisonment.
Swearengen has been jailed on the charges since July 20, 2021.
A large number of family members and friends of David and Olivia Carter were at the plea hearing. Three members of the Carter family made victim impact statements prior to Bradberry issuing Swearengen’s sentence.
Bradberry said a new state law requires that he calculate an estimated earliest-possible release date when family members of a victim are present at a defendant’s sentencing.
Calculating that Swearengen must serve four years of his 12-year sentence before he is eligible for parole, and that he has served about 16 months in jail already, Bradberry said Swearengen could be released on parole in about 2-1/2 years, or sometime around May or early summer 2025.
Prosecutor Reynolds noted that early release on parole is not a guarantee. Bradberry agreed, saying Swearengen would have to go before the parole board and the board would have to agree.
Bradberry continued, “I will add too – that doesn’t count good time credits. He could accumulate credits while he’s serving his time to reduce those days even more. That’s just the way the law is.”
In addition to making an emotional, tear-filled impact statement directly to Swearengen at today’s plea hearing, Nicole Carter, widow of David and Olivia’s mother, issued a statement through the TWRA.
“Today is closure for our family and friends. It’s been a long, emotionally draining two years for all of us, but we are thankful for the TWRA investigators, district attorney, witnesses, and everyone involved who helped bring justice for David and Olivia.
“What happened to David and Olivia could have been prevented. What started as a fun, family day out on the water ended in the worst way possible, all because someone decided to consume alcohol and then operate a watercraft. This one terrible decision forever changed and impacted the lives of so many people.
“You may think this could never happen to you, but trust me, it can. I am begging you; please do not operate any form of motorized vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The damages left behind will forever impact our daily lives,” Nicole Carter said.