Richard Hyatt

John Swearingen easy to love, but not easy to like

It has always been easy to love John Swearingen, but not easy to like him.

For 25 years he was a daredevil defense attorney, representing clients others avoided. He was daring and relentless and he enjoyed the give-and-take of the courtroom.

For the past 19 years, he has been a felon and an addict — a defendant instead of a defense attorney. Colleagues offered 150 minutes of character testimony, but peers disbarred him in 1997.

But always he was fun-loving Johnny. Those close to him enjoyed his stories and his friendship.

I’ve known him a long time. I went by his office after he was arrested for the first time years ago. He cried that day and so did I.

So when I heard he was in hospice care, I knew what I should do. I found his room and I knocked.

One of his daughters was there. The Braves game was on TV. Johnny was in a hospital bed.

He was still. His eyes were open and so was his mouth. He didn’t make a sound. He had been this way for several days.

His daughter left us alone so we could talk. Only I did all the talking.

I reminded him it was Richard, but that he might know me as “Hog Body,” the name he gave me years ago for reasons that might be apparent.

He didn’t smile or move.

I dropped the names of old friends and told him I had called Jim Houston, a reporter who painfully wrote stories of the lawyers’ decline.

He couldn’t answer so I quit talking. I asked his daughter if he could hear us. She said she hoped so. She had been told that hearing is the last thing to go.

No one knows if he’ll survive. His late father, John Sr., survived D-Day, helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp and served in a covert unit in Korea so surviving is in his genes.

But whatever happens, I hope people remember the gifted and gregarious lawyer and not the person whose felonious actions cost him his career and his reputation.

Remember what John Swearingen himself said: “People like me, with the disease I have, sometimes we just don’t know what we do.”

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at