D.A. to Seek Death Penalty for Stewart
District Attorney Maureen Krueger will seek the death penalty against the alleged gunman charged with killing seven elderly patients and a nurse March 29 at a Carthage nursing home.
Robert Kenneth Stewart, 45, made his first public court appearance Thursday since his arrest the day of the murderous rampage at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. He is being held without bond on a safekeeping order at Central Prison in Raleigh.
Stewart, his beard now somewhat closely cropped and wearing orange and white jail stripes, was brought in escorted by half a dozen law-enforcement officers. He was seated between his court-appointed attorneys, Jonathan Megerian and Frank Wells, of Asheboro.
Family members of the victims filled the jury box and all the spectators' seats.
During the brief hearing, Superior Court Judge Cressie Thigpen granted three defense motions to preserve evidence. Krueger did not object.
"We have filed a motion to preserve the chain of custody of any bullets removed surgically (from Stewart)," Krueger said.
The defense had no objection to preserving any evidence when surgery was medically necessary, Megerian said.
Once those motions had been allowed by Thigpen, Krueger moved to the Rule 24 hearing and began with a formal announcement that she would seek the death penalty.
"At this point we would notify the defense that the state is proceeding capitally," Krueger said.
She cited four aggravating factors to justify the death penalty if a jury convicts him of first degree-murder. Those factors were that the murders were committed during a specific underlying felony, were especially heinous and cruel, created danger for others, and were part of the defendant's course of violent conduct toward another person or persons.
"On the face of the charges, we would say there is at least one mitigating factor," Megerian said. "We would ask the state to tell us at least one of the underlying felonies."
Krueger cited attempted murder.
"We would be prepared to go forward under felony rule attempted murder of Michael Cotton," she said.
Cotton was shot while sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot of the nursing home.
Thigpen set Sept. 10 for an administrative hearing to hear pretrial motions. No date for the trial has been set.
Outside the courts facility, Carthage streets were once again crowded with television news trucks as Stewart arrived under secure escort from Central Prison. In a departure from past practice, cameras were permitted in the courtroom to cover proceedings. Thigpen made the call, as statutes permit, and Dick Ellis came down from the Administrative Office of the Courts to make sure media presence did not interfere or disrupt the hearing.
Cpl. Justin Garner, the only Carthage policeman on duty on a normally sleepy Sunday morning, responded to a 911 call about gunshots fired at the nursing home. He parked his patrol car by the front entrance and headed inside, meeting a woman at the front door who was fleeing for her life.
Garner went in without backup, finding the place enveloped in an eerie silence, as he later said. He encountered the heavyset bearded Stewart in a back hallway. Garner ordered him three times to drop the shotgun he was carrying, but Stewart instead brought it down to aim and fire. Despite being struck by three pellets from a shotgun blast, Garner handcuffed Stewart and placed him under arrest.
Garner has been hailed as a hero, as has nurse Jerry Avant, who lost his life that day while trying to protect others.
Stewart was treated at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital. The following day, after being released from the hospital, Stewart was arraigned on eight counts of first-degree murder before District Judge Jayreene Maness at a hearing held in the sally port at the county jail, then taken directly to Central Prison. The two attorneys from Asheboro were appointed to defend him by the capital defenders office.
A grand jury indicted Stewart on eight counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and other charges.
The events attracted nationwide attention, and the county seat filled with satellite news trucks, television cameras and reporters from national and international networks and news agencies. Police Chief Chris McKenzie held news conferences that were televised live. He and Garner traveled to New York to appear on NBC's The Today Show."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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