State Moves to Physical Evidence in Stewart Trial
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
Prosecutors began entering physical evidence Friday afternoon, starting with the first events of Robert Stewart's Sunday morning attack on a Carthage nursing home two years ago.
Over the course of much of the first week of Stewart's trial, the state called witnesses who took jurors step by step through two of the -bloodiest minutes in the history of Carthage.
Stewart faces eight first-degree murder counts and two counts of attempted first-degree murder along with other charges. He could face the death penalty if convicted on any or all murder counts.
He has admitted that he killed seven elderly patients and a nurse at Pinelake nursing home March 29, 2009. But his attorneys say he was not in control of his actions because of the prescription drugs he was taking, including the sleep aid Ambien. They want the jury to find him not guilty.
Testimony has come from Pinelake residents, workers and the law-enforcement officers who rushed to the scene that day. Assistant District Attorneys Peter Strickland and Tiffany Bartholomew began covering the same ground with evidence such as bullets and photographs
Stewart was seen pacing about the parking lot of Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center about 8:30 a.m. that Sunday, according to testimony.
Sometime before 10 a.m., he went for his wife, Wanda Stewart's, blue PT Cruiser, blasting away with a .22-caliber rifle until he had gone through two full loads, smashing windows and doors, drilling through the driver's side headrest.
Photos of the damage went into evidence, along with the headrest itself with its two bullet holes entering behind and coming out just where the driver's head would rest.
A visitor, Michael Cotten, was on his way to visit an aunt when bullets smashed through his windshield and his shoulder. Photos of his vehicle and his wound showed the damage. Cotten, though wounded, rushed into the center to warn others.
Stewart left his .22-caliber rifle on a vehicle roof, retrieved a long 12-gauge shotgun from the back of his car and headed after him, according to testimony.
Investigators who collected items from that parking lot and who made measurements of and collected items from the scene testified, taking jurors through that clear, windy Sunday from the physical evidence perspective.
One told of bullets collected, holding them up in initialed plastic bags. Another identified clothing removed from bodies in the morgue or taken from Stewart at the hospital.
A gunshot residue (GSR) test reached the state lab more than four hours after swabbing was completed, so the lab would not process it, according to testimony.
Jurors heard that Robert Stewart's black Jeep Cherokee and his wife's PT Cruiser were towed and sealed in the bay area of the Carthage Rescue Squad - protected as evidence in the case.
More photos of the PT Cruiser, some taken from different angles, were shown. Earlier ones had been closer shots, showing where bullet fragments were collected, for example. These were wider shots showing bullets had struck the car from every angle. In the last one, jurors could see a rifle magazine found discarded on the ground behind the car.
Defense attorneys Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells had no objections to these photos or items.
The state then moved on to photos of Stewart's black Jeep Cherokee showing the .22-caliber rifle on top. They showed photograph of that rifle where it had been laid with its barrel resting raised on a luggage rail, then shots of the Jeep interior, its center console cup-holders full of bullets. The last two pictures showed Stewart's mail on the floor by the back seat.
This physical evidence does not signal the end of witness testimony in the case. Still to come will be testimony from Stewart's former wife, Wanda Stewart (now Wanda Neal), expected early in the week.
Based on Strickland's estimate earlier Friday, the defense would not begin calling its witnesses until the last two weeks of August. The trial could easily last well into September.
Earlier Friday, a witness testified about a strange midnight phone call the week before the shootings.
Cynthia Brewer said she had known Stewart's estranged wife, Wanda, all her life. On the Wednesday before the Pinelake murders, Stewart woke Brewer to ask her to get Wanda and her mother and father, Margaret and Melvin Neal, to come over and collect a cat and a dog he said were bothering him, Brewer testified.
"He didn't want them there, and they needed to come and get them," she said. "I said, 'Robert, I can't do that.' I raised up in my bed, and looked (out a window) and said, 'There's not even a light on over there.'"
Brewer said that didn't sit well with Stewart, who became more insistent.
"He said, 'You've got to go get them! You've got to go get them!' - I said, 'I can't go and get them up,'" Brewer testified. "He said he just wanted to get rid of them, just wanted them away from him."
Stewart told Brewer he and his wife had separated.
"He said Wanda had left him again and went 'back to her maaaama' - dragging it out, like that," she said. "He just said that she had left him. He was very upset, really wanted me to go and get them."
Brewer said that making Stewart's wife and her parents - who had not been well - go to retrieve pets in the middle of night made no sense to her.
"I just wasn't going to," she said. "You just can't get people out of bed to go get a dog or a cat."
In any real emergency, Brewer said she would have gone to her friends immediately - but not for something like this, not at such a time of night. She said Stewart's manner changed and he calmed down a little.
"He said that was all right," she testified. "It was like he caught on that I wasn't going to go."
Not long after, Brewer said Stewart called back. She said he seemed in a better frame of mind at first.
"He wanted me to know he thought a lot of me, thought a lot of Curt - that's my father-in-law, Curtis Brewer - said he thought a lot of my husband."
What Stewart said next took a different track, Brewer testified.
"I want you to know that there's gossip through the woods about you," he told Brewer, according to her testimony. "Wanda and her family talk about you.
"He said, 'They've gossiped about me, too,'" Brewer said. "He said this would be the last time Wanda would ever leave him. 'I want you to tell them that this is the last time.' I said OK."
She said Stewart repeated what, in this later context, now sounds like a threat. Brewer said she didn't take it that way then. She said she knew Robert and Wanda Stewart had married, divorced, married others, and later remarried.
"He told me that several times, that he wanted me to tell them that," she said. "I just thought he was through, had had it with trying to work things out. I would say it was 10 minutes or less. He seemed, I don't know, like kindly hopeless."
Brewer said Stewart had never called her before those midnight calls. She was not the only person Stewart phoned that night trying to get his wife and the Neals over to his place.
The next day, Brewer said, she phoned her late husband's father to say that he would never guess who had called her the night before. Curtis Brewer also had a call from Stewart, she testified.
"When I told him, he said, 'He called me, too - wanted me to go and get them,' but he wasn't feeling good," she said. "It was my understanding he called Robert back and said he wouldn't be able to go."
Under cross-examination, Brewer said Stewart didn't just want somebody to collect the two pets. She said he wanted his wife and mother and father and that he wanted them in person and not by telephone.
"He didn't want Wanda to call," Brewer said. "He wanted Wanda and Margaret and Melvin to go over there."
Brewer said she did not know he had also called her father-in-law, who told her he had two conversations with Stewart the night before.
"When Curtis Brewer called Stewart back to say he couldn't go, Stewart said, 'I didn't call you,' and that made him nervous?" Wells asked on cross-examination.
"I do remember hearing that," she said.
Stewart in ER
Following Brewer, a number of officers testified about Stewart and other victims in the emergency room at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.
Lt. Jerry MacDonald, of the Pinehurst Police Department, said he was with Stewart in the emergency room. The hospital was locked down and nobody was allowed in the emergency entrance unless seeking aid.
"They wanted me to take the handcuffs from behind him," he said. "I explained I would have to secure him to each side of the bed, which I did. They were checking his vitals, attaching an IV and were going to put a catheter in. They were asking him about any type of medication, anything he was allergic to. He answered them with a quick response. He was very cooperative and understood everything I was asking him."
Stewart appeared aware he was in the hospital and was cooperative, according to testimony.
"I explained to him what we were doing and he understood," MacDonald said. "He didn't appear to be in any pain. He was very calm. He was cooperative. He was aware of his surroundings - at least he appeared to be."
MacDonald said he helped move Stewart to the intensive care unit. He said two more investigators and a magistrate came in to serve warrants.
"They came in and approached the defendant and started reading him the warrants," he said. "I didn't hear everything he was charged with because I was busy. I asked what all he was charged with. He just offered me the warrants, but I didn't take them."
MacDonald identified Stewart as the man sitting in the courtroom "in a black jacket and a green shirt."
For the first time in the trial, Stewart was wearing a tie.
On Thursday, emergency room nurse Rebecca Powell testified that she dressed Stewart's wound and packed gauze to stem bleeding. She said he was always handcuffed except when they had to be removed for medical procedures such as X-rays. He seemed alert and able to answer questions, she said.
"He told me he and his wife separated," she said. "He'd been very nervous, took some nerve pills when he went to see his wife. She was working at Pinelake."
Powell said Stewart told her he was suicidal, and she went through the standard routine of getting him to make what she called "a contract" not to hurt anybody while he was in the hospital.
When he told Powell he wanted to kill himself, she said she asked if he had the means.
"I would shoot myself," she said he told her.
A Carthage police lieutenant testified Thursday afternoon that he found Stewart lying face down, handcuffed hands behind him, and got down flat on the floor himself to give the Miranda warning.
Lt. Rick Bickel said he had rushed to the rear entrance of Pinelake after hearing from officer Justin Garner that the shooter was down, and Garner had been shot.
"I could see a faint figure of someone lying and someone standing," Bickel said. "Inside, I saw a gentleman laying on his chest, handcuffed. I saw Justin Garner leaning on a wall, a little bit of blood on his left leg. He looked as if he was in pain."
Leaving sheriff's deputies guarding the suspect, Bickel said he collected Garner's handgun, unloaded it and got the officer to his patrol car, where he took off Garner's boot and sock and checked the wound. Then, he returned to the scene and got down on the floor, where he could look Stewart in the eye.
"He was lying down, and I had to get down low," Bickel said. "I literally lay on my chest in front of him. I said, 'You have the right to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court...'"
Bickel said he gave Stewart his Miranda rights, the two lying face-to-face on the floor not far from a pistol on the floor and a long-barreled shotgun leaning against the wall. But jurors did not hear that statement.
Sustaining a defense motion, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb would not allow any testimony about the Miranda warning. The prosecution had hoped to get it in to show Stewart had his wits about him and could understand the rights Bickel read to him.
The jury was allowed to hear what Bickel said Stewart told him after that.
"I asked if he was the only one in there shooting, and how many people had been shot," Bickel said. "He replied he didn't know."
He said he looked, briefly, in Stewart's face and could smell no unusual odors or alcohol. Up to that point, Stewart had appeared calm, according to Bickel's testimony.
"Judging by his statement shortly thereafter, he was upset," Bickel said. "He asked me to shoot him."
Bickel said Stewart was anxious, a little excited.
"Just shoot me," he said Stewart asked. "Come on, get it over with."
It was at the last phrase, when he wanted Bickel to get it over with, that his voice appeared to be excited.
"It was anxious, a little excited," Bickel said. "When he spoke the last phrase, 'Just get it over with; shoot me.' He was obviously excited at that point, upset."
Bickel watched EMS workers load Stewart onto a gurney and put him into an ambulance.
After EMS loaded Stewart, Bickel said he encountered two women near the intersection of the 300 and 400 hallways.
"One of them asked me if it was Robert, and I did not know," he said. "After I got her back in the room, she said, 'It's got to be Robert. Robert is my husband.'"
That was Wanda Stewart (now Wanda Neal), the defendant's estranged wife, who worked at Pinelake.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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