Judge Rules to Keep Stewart Trial Here
The man accused of multiple nursing home murders will face trial in Moore County. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb denied a defense motion to move the capital murder trial of Robert Kenneth Stewart to another county. He will move jury selection, however
The defendant “failed to show that there exists in Moore County so great a prejudice against the defendant that he cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial,” Webb said in his ruling. “…due to pretrial publicity in Moore County, the venue for the limited purpose of jury selection should be transferred to another county.”
He denied a defense motion to continue a safekeeping order housing Stewart in Raleigh. The defendant will remain in the Moore County Detention Center now.
Webb is frustrated by the time it is taking to set a date for trial. Defense lawyers Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells of Ashboro have an older capital case in Randolph County. They represent a 74-year-old woman, Melba Slayton, who was charged along with her son, Ronald Gibbs, for the murder of her husband, Robert Slayton, after investigators discovered his body buried on the family property.
The two were arrested in Alamagordo, N.Mex., and extradited to stand trial in Randolph County. Other attorneys are to defend Gibbs, but Megerian and Wells were appointed to defend her. It is also a capital case, and Megerian told the court that he and Wells have also filed a change-of-venue motion in that case.
No date for any hearing on their Slayton case change-of-venue motion has been set as far as he knows, Megerian said. He estimated trial of her case would last about six weeks: two for jury selection and four for trial.
“You gentlemen want to know which will be tried first?” Webb said. “Court is contemplating asking the chief justice of the state for a special setting of Superior Court for April 11.”
District Attorney Garland Yates told them he planned to try in the spring, Megerian said, but Yates has not requested a special session yet.
“This is illustrative of this court’s major concern of delay, delay, delay in setting that case for trial,” Webb said.
The case did move one step closer with the court allowing a motion by District Attorney Maureen Krueger to have Stewart evaluated as to his mental condition at the time of the alleged offense. Defense lawyer Jonathan Megerian objected.
"For the state to move to examine our defendant for a defense we have not yet raised is really putting the cart before the horse,” Megerian said. “We expect to go to trial on another capital case a few months from now.”
Dix hospital in Raleigh is set to close, and prosecutor Peter Strickland said mental health experts there want to do any evaluations of Stewart after their move to Butner.
“Do you anticipate that your client will be evaluated by mental health experts before Dec. 31, 2010 ?" Webb asked the defense. "Are they ongoing now?”
Franklin Wells said he thought the defense would have its examinations done by Jan. 15, 2011. That would tie in with the earliest time for state experts to do their 90-day examinations at the new site, prosecutors said. Webb allowed the state’s motion.
Jail administrator Eddie Johnson took the stand to testify as Webb heard evidence on the question of whether to sign another safekeeping order and return Stewart to the custody of the Department of Corrections. He said Stewart has been safe and cooperative during the past nine days or so while he’d been in the jail during hearings in his case.
“We have him in one of our segregated cells about 30 feet from our booking desk,” Johnson said. “He as been on four (scheduled) checks every hour, but he really gets checked 20 times an hour. He has calmed down; he has been cooperative with us.”
Johnson told the court it had cost Moore County taxpayers some $54,000 for medical bills and housing the defendant at State Prison, because he is being kept in the mental health section of the state prison in Raleigh under terms of earlier safekeeping orders.
“I paid $3,000 a month for the last 18 months,” Johnson said. “The state charges $83 a day, and I could house him just as well for $63 a day.”
Normally, the DOC would only have charged Moore County $18 a day for safekeeping, but housing Stewart in the mental health ward upped the price, Johnson testified.
Webb shook his head, then made findings of fact and law that will keep the defendant in Carthage until trial – except for any required trips out for mental health evaluation or jury selection in a yet-to-be-determined county.
“There is no longer a need to house the defendant at a state facility; the defendant shall remain in Moore County pending trial,” Webb ruled. “The defense may renew its motion (for a safekeeping order) if the defendant’s attorney becomes aware of a change of circumstances.”
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