Stewart Declines to Testify; Defense Rests
Defense attorneys for Robert Kenneth Stewart - who decided not to testify - rested their case Friday afternoon.
Superior Court Judge James Webb told the jury he expects they will begin deliberating this week.
Earlier, the assistant district attorney prosecuting Stewart on eight counts of first-degree murder went on the offensive with a psychiatrist on cross-examination. Dr. George Corvin had testified Stewart didn't know what he was doing when he shot and killed seven elderly patients and a nurse on March, 29, 2009, at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Cen-ter in Carthage.
Stewart could face the death penalty if the jury convicts him 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 Corvin made when interviewing Stewart not long after the murders. 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 that many times he had had murderous impulses about his wife, Wanda, because she had left him. During the two weeks after she left, Stewart called many people, tried to get a number for former wife Sue, and spoke with her son. He told many of the people he called that he himself was leaving after he "tied up some loose ends," according to testimony.
"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.'"
Corvin testified that Stewart told him during one session "I thought I ought to go blow her head off, but then I thought - she ain't worth it."
Strickland reminded Corvin that Stewart told a nurse at the hospital he had 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 had told the deputy about leaving a loaded rifle on the roof of his car.
As Corvin had diagnosed Stewart 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.
"Yes, manipulative behaviors," Corvin said.
"Was there a time he threatened his own sister with a firearm?" Strickland 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 had accidentally burned down his barn and had gone to live with his aunt.
"Due to the pills and the Ambien, he doesn't remember the past few days," Corvin said.
Strickland then asked, "When he talked with Dr. Rollins the next day, he was calm, he was oriented?"
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 had taken it. He said Stewart had lost weight and slept better.
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 that point, defense attorney Jonathan Megerian rested for the defense.
Stewart Won't Testify
Superior Court Judge James Webb then 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," Webb said. "You are able to hear and understand me?"
"Yes, sir," Stewart replied.
"Your lawyers have rested the presentation of your case," Webb said. "You have the right to testify in your case. Do you understand that?"
Stewart said that he did. Webb cautioned Stewart that prosecutors would be able to cross-examine him if he did testify. Webb told Stewart he had an absolute right to testify, and an absolute right not to testify.
Stewart was still under oath from during jury selection in Albemarle at the time he gave permission for his attorneys 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 attorneys. 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.
Webb agreed. After some minutes in conference, Stewart and his attorneys 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.
Megerian's move to dismiss the case at the close of the defendant's evidence was denied.
Signs of Depression
The state had two rebuttal witnesses to the defense case.
"He was showing signs of situational depression," said Vonda Reives, nurse practitioner at Moore Family Care in Robbins, who provided care for Stewart. "He was sad. He was having trouble sleeping. I prescribed 10 mg. Lexapro. One of his chief complaints was he was having trouble sleeping. ... He had been on Ambien for two and a half years."
During all that time, Stewart never complained about any difficulties with Ambien, she said.
"There were no complaints of problems with the Ambien," Reives said.
Strickland asked if there were steps to go through to be sure people were safe
"When I saw him, I said I have to ask some questions," she said. "He raised his hand and said, 'No, no, no. I don't want to hurt myself or anybody else.' It was as if he knew that question might become ..."
She said Stewart had discussed plans of moving and wanted her to find him a doctor in Idaho.
Stewart's doctor had noted he had been depressed some years before.
"I had never treated him for depression," she said. "He was not on any medication or seeing any therapist at the time when I assumed his care. He had discussed his plan of moving to Idaho. I said we would get him into care. It takes sometimes two months to get in to see a psychiatrist.
"It didn't seem he needed to get to the emergency room, because he was suicidal. He was sad about his wife leaving. Most of the time when I treat for depression, it is because of a couple breaking up. Sometimes they need therapy."
This visit was different in that he was tearful, Reives said. That did not in itself cause any concerns for her other than getting him some follow-up treatment. She reassured him that he could call if anything came up.
"He could come back to see me sooner," she said. "We have 24 hour call. He had the form to make the appointment. The appointment with behavioral health was not made that day, because he didn't stay for the appointment. We would have made the appointment that Monday."
Strickland showed Reives the enlarged display card showing her progress sheet on Stewart from that March 27. He asked, from prior history, if there was any indication there for depression.
"No," she said, not then. "Back in 2005, Dr. Leonard had written a letter for him showing there was some concern for depression."
Her own records did not show any indication for depression, she said.
"It just meant we wanted to get him in before he left," she said. "He talked as if he was already making preparations to leave."
Over the years she'd been treating Stewart, she said he had been compliant with the care.
"He was always pretty compliant," she said. "We had developed a pretty good relationship by the time I last saw him."
Reives later testified that her plan was to have him seen by behavioral health and his care continued there.
"From my understanding. he did not have the Ambien anymore," she said. "The Xanax I gave him was going to help with the anxiety that he did have and would have helped him get to sleep."
Stewart had been evaluated by a pulmonologist who knew he was on Ambien and, had not recommended he be taken off Ambien, Reives said. He had been on that medication for a year and a half before she first saw him.
'Wasn't in Rage'
Megerian asked if - the week she saw Stewart - when he called to say he'd lost his Loricet and other medication - she was aware of all the calls he'd been making that week. She said she wasn't.
"What we discussed on the 27th was that he had lost his medication," she said. "I couldn't refill it, because it was too early. I knew it was prescribed on the 18th and he had filled it, and he had refills on his prescription."
Megerian asked if she "intended" for Stewart to take Ambien with the other medication. He asked the question several times, waving his arms when she seemed puzzled by what he meant. She said it would be fine if he took them as prescribed.
"There would be nothing wrong with that," she said. She'd made a note on the medicine flow sheet, as always whenever a patient comes in.
"You know Ambien is a problem for people with depression, suicidal thoughts?" Megerian asked.
"This was his first episode of suicidal depression that I knew of," she said.
In this case Stewart had been on Ambien for two and a half years with no problem, based on the documentation from those years.
"We can't go by evidence we don't have," she said. "If he didn't present those symptoms, we can't just make them up. If I felt like he needed to be watched, I would have gotten on the phone and said this guy needs to be watched. I did not feel the patient needed to be watched."
Megerian once more asked if he came in tearful saying his wife had left him, and if she was aware part of the dispensing instructions for Lexapro is that families should be told to keep an eye on someone taking it.
"He wasn't in a rage," she said. "He wasn't angry. He was sad. I didn't feel he needed somebody to stand over him and watch him. I did feel he needed some therapy."
Megerian asked if she was aware Lexapro and Xanax could add to the chance of Ambien side effects. She said he had been on Ambien successfully without problems.
Megerian asked if she knew Stewart's former wife had tried to commit suicide while on those drugs.
"I have not been following this case," she said. "I have not been following the media. I have not treated her."
Reives found out about Stewart that Sunday after the shootings.
Strickland still has one more rebuttal witness. Webb said in all likelihood the jury will be in deliberations Thursday, Sept. 1.
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