Defense Rests in Murder Trial – Stewart Won’t Testify
Early Friday afternoon, counsel for Robert Kenneth Stewart rested the case for the defense. Stewart will not testify.
Earlier, the assistant district attorney prosecuting him for first-degree murder went after a psychiatrist on cross-examination. The doctor had testified Stewart didn’t know what he was doing when he shot-gunned to death seven nursing home residents and a nurse.
The killing took place more than two years ago, on Mar. 29, 2009, at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage. Stewart’s trial could send him to his death from lethal injection if his jury convicts and recommends capital punishment. Jurors are bused in each day from Stanly County because of pretrial publicity.
Prosecutor Peter Strickland went over notes forensic psychiatrist George Corvin made when interviewing the defendant not long after the event. He asked again and again how Stewart could have been so affected by the hypnotic drug Ambien that he didn’t know what he was doing when he went to Pinelake that Sunday morning.
Stewart had told the psychiatrist about many times he’d had murderous impulses about his wife, Wanda, because she’d walked out on him. During the two weeks after Wanda left, Stewart called many people, tried to get a number for former wife Sue, spoke with her son. He told many of the people he called that he himself was leaving after he “tied up some loose ends.”
“He was heating the phone lines up during that time, yes sir,” Corvin said. “After he tried to call Wanda, she left a message not to call anymore. He thought about ‘getting ahold of her and breaking her neck.’”
“I thought I ought to go blow her head off,” Stewart had told Corvin at one session. “But then I thought – she ain’t worth it.”
Strickland reminded Corvin that Stewart told a nurse at the hospital he’d gone to see his wife at work that morning, according to medical records. Corvin – who said he hadn’t recalled that – agreed Stewart did say it, and that he’d told the deputy about leaving a loaded rifle on the roof of his car.
As Corvin had diagnosed the defendant as having trouble with the edges of his inner self – a condition called “borderline personality disorder” – Strickland wanted to know if such individuals typically play mind games with others.
“Sort of play with the psyche of their partners?” he asked.
“Yes, manipulative behaviors,” the psychiatrist said.
“Was there a time he threatened his own sister with a fire arm?” the prosecutor asked.
‘That has been described, yes,” Corvin said.
“Those people – who may get depressed or get ‘out of it’ – if they have pets, do they neglect to take care of their pets at those times?” Strickland asked.
“Sure, they neglect everything and let everything go,” Corvin said. “That can include pets. I can’t remember the date offhand but he did surrender an animal (to the Humane Society). He did still have a dog there.”
According to Corvin’s notes, Stewart had told him he’d accidentally burned down his barn, had gone to live with his aunt.
“Due to the pills and the Ambien he doesn’t remember the past few days,” Corvin said. “When he talked with Dr. Rollins the next day, he was calm, he was oriented?” Strickland asked.
As he recalled, Stewart was calm and collected at that time. Corvin said he believes Ambien was of some benefit to Stewart over the two years he’d taken it. He’d lost weight, slept better.
“People take Ambien at night; the reason for that is that it helps you get to sleep,” the psychiatrist said. “Sleep caused by those medications is not healthy sleep architecture. It gets you to sleep and you can sleep, then you get up – live your day.”
Corvin’s medical opinion – based on the 31 ng/ml found in Stewart’s blood nearly 10 hours after his arrest – is that Stewart had to have taken a large amount of the sleep medicine for that much still to be in his system.
When Stewart went to Moore Family Care in Robbins on Friday afternoon two days before the killings, he was not capable of deliberating his acts, Corvin said – in his medical opinion.
Strickland asked whether Stewart could have gone to Pinelake that Sunday intending to kill his wife, and – when he couldn’t get to her – killed elderly people she loved and cared for.
Corvin said he couldn’t rule that out, just thought it unlikely.
At this point, Megerian rested for the defense.
“Your Honor, that will conclude the defense case in chief,” he said.
Webb sent the jury out.
“You may remain seated Mr. Stewart and I remind you that you are still under oath from some weeks ago when I asked you some questions out of the presence of the jury.
“You are able to hear and understand me?”
“Your lawyers have rested the presentation of your case. The court sent the jury out. You have the right to testify in you case, do you understand that?”
He said he did. Webb cautioned him that the state would be able to cross-examine him if he did testify. The judge told Stewart he had an absolute right to testify, and an absolute right not to testify. Stewart was still under oath from Albemarle during jury selection at the time he gave permission for his lawyers to admit he committed all the acts charged against him.
Webb assured Stewart that if he chose not to take the stand, the court could instruct the jury not to consider that in any way, if asked by his lawyers. He told him he could confer with counsel, and encouraged him to do so before deciding.
“Could I speak with my attorneys in private?” Stewart asked.
“Yes, sir. You may.”
After some minutes in conference, Stewart and his counsel returned to the courtroom. Webb asked the defendant if he had any questions.
“Under advice of my attorneys, I feel it is best if I don’t testify,” Stewart said.
Several pieces of evidence – items like a photo of Stewart from years ago in his National Guard uniform – were received by the court. Megerian moved to dismiss the case at the close of the defendant’s evidence was denied.
Strickland will call two rebuttal witnesses, he told the court.
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