Defense to Start in Pinelake Murder Trial
The defense of Robert Kenneth Stewart begins Monday.
Stewart was the 400 pound bearded man who roamed nursing home hallways two years ago, using his long-barreled shotgun to shoot to death at close range – between two and six feet – eight people. Seven were elderly residents of Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. One was a nurse. He wounded two others, one of them Justin Garner – the only police officer on duty that Sunday morning.
Garner and Stewart confronted each other in a gun battle. As Stewart brought his shotgun to bear on the young policeman and squeezed its trigger, Garner fired one shot from his .40 caliber Glock. The officer was hit in the leg. Stewart went down, moaning and murmuring, “Kill me. Just kill me…” while Garner handcuffed him.
The case brought TV and news reporters from all over the globe to Carthage. Garner and police chief Chris McKenzie appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, but declined other offers. The chief left the department this month, succeeded by his then second-in-command Bart Davis. Garner is in training for the state Highway Patrol.
Trial began July 11 with jury selection in Albemarle, and moved to Carthage on Aug. 1. Every day family members of the victims sit in court directly behind and a few rows back from the jury. Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland rested the case for the state just before five o’clock Thursday afternoon. Court recessed for the weekend, because a pregnant juror had an appointment with her doctor set for Friday. The defense will call its first witness Monday morning when court reconvenes at 10 a.m.
The most unusual aspect of Stewart’s defense is that – with his permission – his attorneys freely admitted in court that he committed all the killings, actually did all the other actions alleged in multiple indictments against him.
Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells say their client is not guilty of murder even though he shot ten people and caused the deaths of eight. He was on what Megerian describes as a “drug cocktail” of the anti-depressant Lexapro and the sleep aid Ambien, a sleep medication that acts as a hypnotic agent. That combination put Stewart in a drug-induced sleepwalking state in which he acted not willfully but as “an automaton.”
They say that Stewart has no memory whatsoever of that day, and is not legally culpable for his actions. Drugs he took have well-documented, though rare, side-effects. Ambien (zolpidem or zolpidem tartrate) can sometimes produce pronounced amnesia, which they will argue explains their client’s claimed lack of memory.
More rarely, Ambien has been said to cause hallucinations, especially when large doses are taken. Studies say it can even produce “a fugue state where the patient sleepwalks and may perform relatively complex actions, including cooking meals or driving cars,” while remaining completely unconscious.
On waking, those subjects reportedly had no recollection of those events.
The defense will call a toxicologist and a psychiatrist, Megerian said Thursday. They hope to complete their entire case within three days, resting on Wednesday. In his opening statement Megerian said the defense agrees with prosecutors as to what Stewart did that morning – they just don’t agree it was murder.
Their defense will ask jurors to ask not what Stewart did, but why. That, Megerian said, is the real question: what was going on in his client’s head? Starting Monday, the defense will seek to offer evidence that Stewart – depressed and on antidepressants – also took large amounts of Ambien. They will argue Stewart was in a state like sleepwalking, doing complicated things he could not remember afterward.
“Robert Stewart does not remember what happened on March 29, 2009, and he has never been able to tell anyone about it,” Megerian said. “Everything you heard … is true. Absolutely horrifying and blood-curdling – I wish we could make it go away.”
The defense will rely on evidence they claim will show what must have been the state of Stewart’s mind – disordered by a cocktail of drugs – at the time all those actions, all these killings, took place, done by a man who did not know what he was doing.
“I agree these are horrible killings,” his lawyer said at the beginning. “I do not agree that what Robert Stewart did was murder.”
This isn’t the first Moore County case where attorneys sought to use drugs and mental capacity as a defense. In a quadruple-murder case from 2007, attorneys for Mario Lynn Phillips tried to convince jurors not to convict him of first-degree murder for the deaths of four young men found shot and stabbed in Carolina Lakes subdivision east of Carthage.
They contended Phillips was mentally ill, addicted to – and on – drugs at the time and was distraught because he thought his friends were responsible for killing his brother earlier that same day in Fayetteville. His brother had been shot, but not killed – Phillips didn’t know his brother was alive.
After convicting Phillips, it took the jury only four hours to return a binding recommendation of death. The Supreme Court of North Carolina upheld his conviction and sentence last month.
If Stewart is convicted, the trial will enter a second chapter called the “punishment phase.” In this part of the trial – if it gets to that – jurors will weigh evidence of “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors.
In North Carolina, the only punishment for first-degree murder is life without possibility of parole. A sentence of death requires something more, something that makes a particular case of what Megerian described as “willful, meant-to-do-it, planned it ahead of time, cold-blooded” murder worse, something calling for death.
It takes a unanimous jury to return – beyond a reasonable doubt – a recommendation of death. In the Carolina Lakes case, that was the sentence given Phillips’ co-defendant, Sean Ray, who was tried and convicted separately but sentenced to life without parole.
During jury selection Megerian again and again told prospective jurors he hoped and prayed the trial jury would understand, find Stewart not guilty, and “he will walk out the door, and we can all go home.”
Once the defense rests, Strickland told the court the state would take a day for rebuttal witnesses. The next step would be a “charge conference” in which each side argues which of the state-mandated patterned jury instructions Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb should use.
Closing arguments come next – first the state, then defense, then the state again – followed by Webb’s charge. The case could go to the jury later this week, or on the following Monday.
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