Jury Complete: Pinelake Murder Trial Starts Monday
With the selection of the last alternative juror, the trial of the man who shot eight people to death on a Sunday morning in 2009 is coming home to Carthage, scene of the crime.
When prosecutors Peter Strickland and Tiffany Bartholomew said the state was pleased with him, and defense lawyers Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells agreed, he became the last of the trial’s 16 jurors – twelve regular, and four alternates.
Granting a defense request, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb set Monday, Aug. 1, for opening statements. Jurors were summoned to report back to the Stanly County court at 9:30 a.m. Thursday for further procedures and instructions by the court.
Every day they will board a bus in Albemarle and be brought to Carthage to hear the state’s capital case against Robert Kenneth Stewart. He could be executed if convicted and sentenced to death on any or all of eight first-degree murder charges.
Picking jurors took two and a half weeks, because each one had to be willing to return a recommendation of either death or life without parole. As the defense told each one during the process, this trial is not about what happened as much as why. They are contending Stewart is not legally responsible for his actions because of various medical and mental health grounds. He admits doing everything the state says he did.
“Robert went down there with a shotgun and shot eight people to death,” Megerian said. “We are not going to question that he went down there and did that. Was he capable of understanding? Was he capable of understanding what he did at all? Was he functioning as an automaton? That is going to be the heart of all this.”
Their questions went to what each of the jurors thought about death penalties, whether they understood that state law set life in prison without the possibility of parole as the standard punishment for first-degree murder. As to that, Megerian over and over said he hopes – and prays – Stewart not guilty, either by reason of insanity or impairment by the side-effects of powerful medications.
“If we win, I don’t really care what you think about the death penalty, because we are never going to have to consider it,” he said. “Only if that doesn’t work – only if you convict him of first-degree murder – is that ever going to come up. At that point we don’t get to ask you questions about the death penalty.”
He and Wells tag-teamed jurors, switching back and forth between them throughout the selection process. At the state’s table, Strickland did all the questioning and relied on his second chair prosecutor for her advice and counsel on which to reject and which to approve.
It was always his task to tell potential jurors what this case was about, and make the first explanation of the two-phase structure of capital trials: one on guilt, and a second on punishment.
“On March 29, 2009, this man walked into a nursing home with a shotgun and shot ten people; eight of them died,” he would begin. “In addition, there was a man there visiting relatives who was shot in the parking lot and went in to warn others. A police officer was shot and wounded.”
After explaining that Stewart faces multiple counts of first-degree murder and other charges, Strickland begins to lay out the path from a murder conviction through a second chapter where jurors make a binding recommendation of the right penalty: literally life or death.
“Under the law of the state of North Carolina, the death penalty is appropriate for some – but not all – cases of deliberate, thought-it-out first-degree murder,” Strickland would say. “First, the state proves first-degree murder. Then, the state proves at least one aggravating factor – something like killing a police officer – then and only then could you even consider the death penalty.”
In each of these 16 examinations these men and women satisfied the state they could return a sentence of death if they decided, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it was the appropriate penalty.
They satisfied the defense that they knew that, if they convicted Stewart on any or some or all of the first-degree murder charges, they would begin deliberation in the penalty phase assuming life without parole the right sentence barring evidence proving something more.
“If you decided Robert Kenneth Stewart is guilty of cold-blooded deliberate first-degree murder, could you consider a life sentence? Megerian asked.
He could, and the defense accepted him.
Megerian would like opening statements to be set for Monday, Aug. 1, rather than Friday so they will have time to go over reports from the Central Regional Hospital.
“I have some concern making my opening statement without having all the discovery to go over,” Megerian said.
When all jurors could not get back to the courtroom Wednesday afternoon, Webb allowed that change.
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