Questioning Jurors Changes as Stewart Admits Killings
Half the jury was in the box Thursday for Robert Kenneth Stewart’s coming trial on eight counts of first-degree murder. Those and other charges resulted from his deadly visit to a Carthage nursing home two years ago.
At the noon break, with nine accepted by the state, and defense attorneys questioning them, it appeared the jury box could be filling more quickly than anticipated. One was challenged for cause and released, but at least three of the remaining number looked acceptable to the defense. At 2:30, all three were accepted, handed red juror badges and told to go home and wait for the call. Only six regular and a number of alternates to go.
Stewart's lawyers take turns asking questions, then excuse or accept jurors at the end of their voir dire.
Sheriff Lane Carter and his deputy Maj. Ronnie Fields were in the Albemarle courtroom observing. Jurors will come from Stanly County due to pretrial publicity and be bused each day to and from Carthage.
Fields was mayor of Carthage on Sunday morning, Mar. 29, 2009 when Stewart arrived at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center where his estranged wife worked. He shot and wounded one man in the parking lot then entered and killed seven elderly residents and a male nurse.
Late Tuesday, Stewart admitted doing all that, telling Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb he wanted his lawyers to say so in court. That changed the way potential jurors would be questioned as both sides sought to fill the remaining nine seats and find three alternate jurors as well.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland began the day Thursday questioning people drawn from the jury pool for the remaining seats as new members replaced two released the day before.
“I will ask all nine of you the same question I asked yesterday of seven of you,” Strickland said after questioning two new individuals. “Is there any reason you could not give a fair trial to both sides in this case?”
All said they could, and Strickland conferred for a moment with ADA Tiffany Bartholomew looking over questionnaires this group had filled out. He then told the court they were acceptable to the state, and questioning passed to defense attorneys Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells.
“Your first response to Mr. Strickland was ‘I believe the death penalty is the law, and if that is what someone has done, then that should be the penalty,’ – and that’s what you thought when you came in here,” Megerian asks the woman in seat one. “The death penalty is not an issue, and doesn’t matter at all when we are talking about whether Mr. Stewart is guilty or not. If you find him not guilty, he walks out the door. If you find him guilty of any offense except first-degree murder, the judge sentences him and we all go home.”
He wants to make sure every member of the trial jury understands that if they are considering execution it will be because they have convicted Stewart of first-degree murder.
“A murder committed in ‘a cool state of blood’ – that’s the legal term for it – is intended, meant to do it, planned, deliberated first-degree murder,” Megerian said. “My concern, and you can see what it is, is if you believe if you committed first-degree murder you should get the death penalty.”
He asks if it is all right for somebody convicted of deliberate, cold-blooded first-degree murder to receive life without parole.
“I think my client is going home, because I think you will find him not guilty,” he says. “But if he is convicted of those eight cold-blooded murders, are you going to be able to give serious consideration to a sentence other than the death penalty?
Silence, while she thinks – then says she doesn’t know now what the law says.
“I strongly feel that I need to follow the law,” she says. “When I came in here, I didn’t understand how it worked. If the law says I need to consider other things before sentencing someone to death, that’s what I would do.”
If the trial jury convicts Stewart on any first-degree murder charge, there will be no time to ask questions or for jurors to consider how they feel about executing him – so both sides must ask them to consider their beliefs at this stage.
“Aggravating factor is ‘a set of circumstances that makes one murder more deserving of the death penalty’ than others,” Megerian says, reading from a verdict sheet. “There is a list of them in the statutes you would consider that could conceivably apply in this case. If you don’t find aggravating circumstances as fact, then you would be required to return a sentence of life without parole. It is not a matter of opinion – a bunch of jurors sitting around and saying they ‘think he deserves to die.’ If you determine – as a matter of fact – that there are no aggravating factors, we’re finished. If you find one or more, you move to the second question: factors that make him lest deserving of death. You will not be asked to find those beyond a reasonable doubt. Once you have don’t that, step three requires you to balance or weigh and find they are insufficient to outweigh aggravating factors.”
There again, he says, jurors must be unanimous. Finding mitigating factors is one very unusual part of the law, as it does not require the jury be unanimous.
“If you would automatically assign a death penalty you wouldn’t be able to serve,” he said.
“That was good,” she says. (laughter)
“The other part of my question is would that be very difficult for you to do what the law says,” he says.
“Please do not attempt to answer any question you do not fully understand,” Webb says.
“Aggravating is a strike against, or is it automatic?” the juror asks.
“It is absolutely not automatic,” Megerian says. “You decide if it is a fact. The problem we have, I guess, is it is not something that could be done by computer. If every capital case there is a verdict sheet that contains a list of aggravating factors and a list of several mitigating factors you can consider. There will not be weight assigned. The weighing process is going to take place right here (tapping his heart) – you all go back and talk about it, but also requires you do not surrender your deeply held conviction. You should not surrender your honestly held, deeply held conviction just because 11 others disagree.”
“I would not have any problem with not sentencing to death,” she says.
Much time is being spent on that final, possible, second phase since Stewart admits he killed eight people. There will now be no issue at trial over whether he went out to Pinelake that Sunday morning shooting people to death. He admits he did.
His lawyers will offer evidence to support a finding of not guilty based, as they have said, on mental health issues – but they don’t question what he did.
“I killed eight people,” Stewart had told Webb.
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