Stewart Admits Killings
Will Contend Not Guilty Based On Mental Health Defenses
Robert Kenneth Stewart admitted in court Tuesday that he killed eight people in a Carthage nursing home two years ago but said he is not guilty because of mental problems.
Defense attorney Jon Megerian told Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb that his client wanted to give his lawyers permission to tell that to prospective jurors during jury selection.
Webb said he wanted to hear that directly from Stewart.
"Mr. Stewart, your attorney has presented to the court a two-page document," Webb said. "Have you read, and do you understand it?"
Stewart, wearing an open-collared white shirt and dark suit, said he did.
"I went to eighth grade," he said, speaking in a clear, calm voice. "I have a GED, sir. I stood here with both of them beside me and read it three times."
Webb read the document aloud from the bench to be sure Stewart had heard and did understand that he was giving permission to his defense team to admit he committed the alleged acts.
"Now comes the defendant and admits he committed the acts of which he stands accused," Webb read. "The defendant intends to contend he is not guilty of the crimes charged by reason of various mental health defenses."
After Webb finished reading the document aloud, he asked Stewart if he had any questions.
"Do you fully understand this document?" Webb asked Stewart.
"Yes," Stewart said.
"You admit committing the acts charged but contend you are not guilty of the crimes charged due to mental health defenses, and consent to your attorneys admitting to the jury that you committed the acts with which you are charged?" Webb asked.
"Yes," Stewart said.
Webb asked if Stewart would like to confer with his defense attorneys to be sure.
"May I talk to them one more time?" Stewart asked, and with Webb's agreement spoke quietly with Wells and Megerian. At the end, he looked again to the bench.
"All right, Mr. Stewart, do you consent to your attorneys' admitting to the jury you committed the acts charged but contend you are not guilty based on various mental health defenses?" Webb asked.
Stewart said he did.
Twelve jurors had been seated with approval from the state, and now Stewart's attorneys will use his admission to question potential jurors on death penalty attitudes and beliefs knowing Stewart has admitted taking his shotgun and other weapons to the nursing home and killing eight people.
Jury selection in the trial began Monday in Stanly County. Stewart is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of seven elderly patients and a nurse at Pinelake nursing home. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Once the jury is selected, the trial will take place in Carthage. Jurors will be bused back and forth to Moore County.
Pretrial publicity prompted the moving of jury selection to Stanly County, and a huge pool of 750 residents were summoned to jury duty. About 190 showed up for the first day on the fourth floor of the Albemarle courthouse. As of Tuesday afternoon, none had been seated.
Previously, Webb entered an order barring any cameras or broadcast devices and prohibited electronic media or still photography of jurors at any stage during jury selection. Media trucks and newscasters set up across the street for sidewalk sessions with passersby.
Webb opened the special session of Superior Court for Stanly and Moore counties and explained to those empaneled that the trial would last four to six weeks after jury selection was complete, "or it could take a little longer."
Jurors in a capital case must be "death-qualified" - which means they would be willing and able to impose the punishment of death after any first-degree murder conviction.
The clerk began calling names of prospective jurors.
One after another appealed to be excused from service, citing such things as medical and economic grounds. One newlywed wife explained that her husband was completing Air Force training and that they would be moving to Charleston, S.C. She was excused.
By 12:45 p.m., all excuses had been heard and dealt with before Webb sent the panel to lunch.
12 Jurors Seated
When court adjourned, 12 prospective jurors had been seated in the box, and Webb had divided the rest of the pool into three groups. About 26 were sent to wait in the grand jury room down the hall. A second group of 26, designated as Group A, were given cards with a telephone number they were told to call after 6 p.m. Tuesday. The remaining 26, as Group B, were told to phone in after 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
Of 190 people summoned Monday for jury service, only 90 remained in the pool by the end of the day.
On Tuesday, a medical doctor told the court he feared his practice would fail in the event he had to serve as a juror for weeks on end in Carthage. He said he has employees who would lose their jobs. He said he will soon be taking the Bar examination in California for admission to practice there as an attorney. His family has been planning to go with him.
"I'll be taking the test," the doctor said. "They have plans for Disneyland."
His wife, however, is facing major hip surgery this week, he said.
By the midday lunch break, more than half the original panel of 12 had been challenged for cause and replaced. The doctor was released after court resumed in the afternoon session.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland has asked all the questions so far for the state. He asks each one to look around the courtroom and say whether they know anybody there or on the panel. Next, he usually asks about their experience with or knowledge about substance abuse - a hint that drugs may play some part in matters at trial.
He asks how many have firearms at home, how many have been in buildings when a gun was fired, or ever hired an attorney
Then Megerian questions them.
"There are really two trials we are talking about here," he said, beginning with the death penalty issue. "If in fact what happens is you do what I don't expect and convict him of first-degree murder, I don't get to sit down and talk with you again. Not only will it be too late for me to ask you again, it will be too late for you to realize you have a problem. You will be in the jury room."
On questionnaires, one woman wrote she believed in the death penalty if someone is convicted of first-degree murder.
"That's the basis for my question," Megerian said. "I want to be sure you understand if the time comes where you have to consider death or life without parole, it will be because you and 11 other jurors have deliberated and decided Robert Kenneth Stewart 'acted in a cool state of blood' - as the law says - having made up your mind my client committed cold-blooded, deliberated murder.
"You have heard that's not how the law works in this state. The law says some - but not all. Is the appropriate punishment, in your own mind, that the appropriate punishment is death? If you are not fully satisfied and entirely convinced, you find him not guilty. If you are, that is the beginning and not the end. If you believe the appropriate punishment for first-degree murder, can you lay that aside."
The woman said she does think the appropriate punishment for first-degree deliberate murder would be death, but she could put that opinion aside when considering evidence. She said she has heard friends talk about the case and about appropriate punishment.
"They had opinions," she said.
"Anybody think it ought to be life?" Megerian asked her.
"There were both sides," she said.
"The problem is, when we get to that case, and you are trying to decide if it will be life or death, it will be too late to think, 'I can't put my opinions aside' then," Megerian said. "What's wrong is to end up on the jury when you do have a problem and are on the jury and shouldn't be there. Are you sure you are going to be able to listen impartially to this evidence despite your belief that the appropriate punishment is death?"
She answered that she doesn't think it will be a problem and that she could recommend life. Her second cousin had been murdered five years ago but that she didn't attend that trial. She told Megerian what happened to her cousin wouldn't have anything to do with this trial.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
More like this story