Stewart Trial Set to Start
Everything is in place in Albemarle for the start of jury selection Monday in the capital trial of the man charged in a massacre at a Carthage nursing home more than two years ago.
Robert Kenneth Stewart is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of seven elderly patients and a male nurse on March 31, 2009, at Pinelake nursing home. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
He also faces two counts each of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury and assault by pointing a gun, one count of discharging a weapon into occupied property and one count of assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer.
Stewart’s court-appointed counsel contended pretrial publicity made it impossible to try the case locally and wanted the trial moved out of Moore County. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb instead ruled that potential jurors would come from Stanly County, but that the trial would take place in Carthage.
With jury selection moved out of county, most of the staff from District Attorney Maureen Krueger’s office will be making the two-hour round trip daily. Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland, who is prosecuting, plans to stay in Albemarle during that period.
In a surprise move, Krueger recused herself from the case in April to avoid a possible conflict of interest because she had represented Stewart’s mother while still in private practice. Her son had accused his mother of assaulting him, a charge she denies. Krueger negotiated a plea in that case.
Webb had previously denied a motion from Stewart’s attorneys for a court order removing Krueger. She made the decision after consulting with the N.C. State Bar, which oversees and regulates the conduct of attorneys.
Stewart will be kept in the Stanly County jail during jury selection and then be returned to the Moore County jail for the trial itself.
Jurors won’t be sequestered overnight but will be kept together throughout the court day and during lunch breaks, handled by Sheriff Lane Carter’s office. They’ll be brought to Carthage every day by deputies, taken to and from lunch, and then returned to Albemarle at the end of each trial day.
Officials in the Stanly County clerk of courts office are ready.
“The impact on the Stanly County system is big,” Clerk of Court Michael Honeycutt said. “It is big because the courtroom will be used for so many weeks. We will have to move our Criminal Superior Court administrative sessions to a smaller courtroom.”
Family members of murder victims, members of the media and others are expected join hundreds of Stanly County residents summoned for jury service in a crowded downtown Albemarle, with limited parking on a normal day, according to the clerk.
“With extra people in and out of the courthouse, parking is an issue here,” Honeycutt said. “There is not a lot of parking — could be other problems if it carries on longer than we expect. We were told four weeks, but Judge Webb thinks it may go longer.
About 750 people were called by assistant clerk Theresa Lewis, who handles juries for the county. Not all will arrive at court on Monday at 10 a.m. for the first day, however.
“We will have 190 coming in on each of the first three Mondays,” Honeycutt said. “The last group will be 180, if we don’t have a jury by then. In this particular case Judge Webb is going to be taking care of orientation and everything. From what I’ve been able to talk to the judge about, I think he’s got everything organized and ready to go.”
The courtroom in Albemarle is small, and it may be that only members of the jury pool will be admitted during orientation. There’s a bottleneck getting in and out of the building, with metal detector and an X-ray machine checking everybody entering the building.
“This courthouse is locked down only one way in or out generally,” Honeycutt said. “That’s the front door. They have to check everybody in. There has been some discussion as to whether the press can come in until prospective jurors come in — just to make sure we’ve got enough room and chairs for jurors so when they come to court they will be accommodated.”
Stanly County is not much different from Moore County, according to Honeycutt, who taught school there for more than 30 years before his election as clerk of superior court four years ago.
The jury selection process could take several weeks.
Webb heard the last round of pre-trial motions in June, giving final approval to questionnaires members of the jury pool will fill out prior to being questioned by attorneys.
Earlier in June the judge signed an order prohibiting electronic media and still photography “in any courtroom, hallway or lobby at any stage of the trial.”
Shooting at Random
Police say Stewart entered Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center on that quiet Sunday morning, after shooting a man in the parking lot outside.
Once inside, they say he roamed the halls apparently shooting helpless elderly residents at random, killing seven of them and a male nurse.
He is thought to have been looking for his estranged wife, Wanda Gay Neal Stewart, who worked at the facility, authorities say.
The couple married for the first time in 1983 and divorced three years later. After marriages to other people ended, the couple married a second time in June 2002. Family members say she left him in February, and he had threatened her.
One witness saw him visit the center a day before the shootings took place. On the fatal Sunday morning, police say Stewart came armed with more than one weapon.
His wife survived by hiding in a bathroom inside the locked Alzheimer’s patient area. Carthage police officer Justin Garner, responding to a number of 911 calls from Pinelake, arrived alone in his patrol car and entered alone what he later described as deathly silent hallways with no one in sight.
Stewart was reloading when the two encountered each other, and a gun battle followed. Garner put an end to the violence by shooting Stewart in the chest just as Steward fired, wounding the officer in the leg.
Garner, the only officer on duty, responding to “shots fired,” went into the home without backup.
“If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is,” Police Chief Chris McKenzie said the next day at a press conference.
Garner has since left the Carthage force after being accepted for training as an officer in the N.C. State Highway Patrol. He is expected to testify at the trial.
The murders attracted a swarm of state and national media outlets. Television news trucks were a common sight around Carthage in the days after the shootings.
The trial is also expected to generate a great deal of outside media coverage.
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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