State Winding Down Case in Stewart Trial
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
The state is starting to wrap up its capital murder case against Robert Kenneth Stewart after a month of trial.
Stewart, 47, could face death by lethal injection if the jury convicts him of one or more of eight counts of first-degree murder in the March 29, 2009, shooting deaths of eight people at Pinelake nursing home in Carthage.
His lawyers say he isn’t legally responsible for his actions because he has no memory of killing anybody. Everything happened in a drug-induced hypnotic state that had him acting automatically the way people do when sleepwalking, according to the defense strategy. They said he was taking prescription drugs, including the sleep aid Ambien.
During jury selection in Stanly County, Stewart’s attorneys conceded — with his permission granted under oath — that he did everything alleged in the indictments. Stewart legally admitted shooting 10 people, killing eight — seven helpless elderly residents of Pinelake and a nurse, Jerry Avant.
He also wounded a man he saw in the parking lot before entering the nursing home that Sunday morning, as well as Carthage Police Officer Justin Garner. He and Garner faced each other in a hallway shootout, where the officer’s single bullet ended the rampage and put Stewart on the floor, moaning and pleading, “Kill me! Kill me! Just kill me!” according to testimony.
One of the most important witnesses for the state will take the stand next week — Stewart’s former wife, Wanda Neal (her maiden name). The state has said all along that Stewart was out to kill his estranged wife when he went to Pinelake where she worked, shot up her car and went inside looking for her.
Neal was supposed to take the stand earlier, and her delayed appearance led to much speculation. Defense lawyers told Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb she’d tried to take her own life in the early morning hours of July 21, the day before opening statements in Carthage.
Neal was rushed to the emergency room and survived her overdose attempt, according to statements in court.
She was released last Tuesday from FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital to go home. That evening, she met with prosecutors Peter Strickland and Tiffany Bartholomew at the district attorney’s office, and the state expected to call her the next day.
It didn’t happen. Defense attorneys Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells told Webb they wanted to see copies of all her medical and mental health records, saying that under the circumstances, they would need that to prepare for cross-examination.
Webb would issue a court order for the production of those records according to terms to be worked out in a conference between defense and prosecution lawyers, attorneys for Neal and Pinelake, and Neal herself late Wednesday after court.
The next day Neal had signed various medical record releases. Webb signed the order, and all but one set of records were brought to court Thursday. On Friday, the sole remaining set of records was brought from another county and added to the rest.
The coming week will start with a short session Monday, with evidence offered by the first of two psychiatrists who examined Stewart at Central Regional Hospital.
Dr. LaVonne Fox will testify to conclusions she reached to determine his state of mind at the time of the Pinelake attack.
At some point, Dr. Nicole Wolfe — also from Central Regional— will also testify about examinations of Stewart that were done at the hospital, though no date for her testimony has been announced.
Two more medical examiners are to take the stand Wednesday.
Depending on the extent of cross-examination and other factors, the state could rest as early as Wednesday or as late as Thursday. If that is the case, it appears likely the defense will begin putting on its evidence Monday, Aug. 22.
Recessing court Thursday afternoon, Webb said he was giving jurors a long weekend so one of them wouldn’t have to miss a long-planned trip to a family event in Florida. Webb also ordered a late (10 a.m.) start for what he termed “a half day” of testimony on Monday.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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