Testimony For State Nears End
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 this 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.
She wasn’t on her regular hall that Sunday, but had been asked to work with Alzheimer’s patients in the TLC (tender loving care) unit. Stewart got all the way to its locked doors, where he killed a wheelchair-bound man who was waiting to visit his wife, according to testimony last week.
Neal is expected to tell jurors that Stewart abused her verbally and psychologically throughout their life together. Other witnesses will be offered to corroborate what she will say, according to prosecutors.
Earlier witnesses testified she had been terrified when she realized the shooter described to her was her husband. She hid in a bathroom deep inside the TLC unit after that, according to testimony.
Her testimony this week is expected Tuesday at the earliest.
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 asked Strickland to see if she would sign a documents but when she wanted the prosecutor to tell her what she ought to do, he had to tell her — and tell the court — that he could not give her legal advice.
Neal, along with the nursing home, has been named in a civil lawsuit filed by some families of murder victims contending that it was aware of the threat posed by Stewart and failed to take adequate steps to protect residents and employees.
Lee Evans, the attorney representing the facility, was in court. He met outside briefly with Neal and returned to say she could release her records under seal.
While he is paid by Peak Resources, the parent company of Pinelake, he said advising her on this matter would not constitute a conflict.
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 and all but one set of records were brought to court Thursday. Webb would sign the order, and the sole remaining set of records would be brought from another county and added Friday morning.
By order of the court, those private papers will remain under seal and only made available to court officials and attorneys for both sides.
As a result, Neal could be not only the most important, but also possibly the final witness before the state rests.
State of Mind
This 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. Both are coming from out of state — one from Washington state and one from Texas — to present evidence relating to other murder victims. Their testimony has long been scheduled for Aug. 17.
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 his class reunion. Webb also ordered a late (10 a.m.) start for what he termed “a half day” of testimony on Monday.
Three weeks of jury selection impaneled 16 jurors — 12 regular and four alternates — in Albemarle. Webb ordered jurors be brought daily from Stanly County and sequestered while in Carthage because of pre-trial publicity and local interest in Moore County.
Already one juror had to leave due to a death in his family, reducing the number of alternates to three when his seat was filled.
Step by Step
In earlier testimony, last week experts from the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab said they had found a number of drugs in blood drawn from Stewart.
Richard Waggoner, an SBI toxicologist, told the jury he had found evidence of the anti-depressant Lexapro, Benadryl and the sleep aid Ambien in Stewart’s blood. He also found trace amounts of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, as well as caffeine in Stewart’s system.
That could be significant in the light of the defense contention that Ambien could have produced the sleepwalking state they say Stewart was in when he did the killing.
Other forensic evidence included step-by-step recreation of the events of the crime by Cathy Williams, a detective sergeant with the criminal investigation division of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. Called at home, she’d arrived at Pinelake about 11 that morning and entered 300 hallway through the back door.
“Numerous individuals were deceased inside the nursing home,” she was told. Williams photographed and documented the scene.
Using data from those measurements and her investigation, Williams retraced Stewart’s path through Pinelake that day, illustrating each homicide scene with enlarged illustrations. Megerian objected to showing the jury bigger versions of photographs it had already seen, but Webb overruled.
These displays showed, again, pictures of the deceased as they had been found. Seeing them again, even larger, seemed hard on family members in the courtroom, who sometimes sighed, sometimes sobbed.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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