Motions Heard in Pinelake Case
Jury selection for the suspect facing capital murder charges in the shooting deaths of eight people at a Carthage nursing home in 2009 is to start July 11 in Albemarle.
Robert Kenneth Stewart could face the death penalty if convicted. Jurors will come from Stanly County, with selection taking place in a fourth-floor courtroom in Albemarle. The trial will follow in Carthage.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were in court Monday and Tuesday with a number of pretrial motions. Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland said the state had only one motion and asked for all cases to be joined and tried as one.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb allowed that motion, with Stewart’s court-appointed defense attorney Jonathan Megerian objecting “for the record.”
This is the only case calendared for jury selection during that term in that district, and Megarian told the court it would be easy for anybody getting a summons to jury duty to find out what case they might be hearing. That could lead to many requests before district court judges to be deferred or excused.
“What worries me is the jury pool all know exactly what case it is,” Megerian said. “We are going to have these large panels, all of whom know. It is fairly obvious to them if they are summoned for July 11. That’s a due process problem.”
Strickland said the law clearly requires District Court judges to consider requests only on two grounds: great personal hardship or public safety. Anything else must be considered by the trial judge.
Webb is still thinking over his final decision on the defense’s concern but said he is considering an order to Chief District Court Judge Lisa Thacker that she, or her designated district judge, hear and pass on all written requests handed in before July 11 with requests and written reasons for their rulings part of the record.
Anybody asking to be excused on or after that date will appear before the trial judge — at this point expected to be Webb himself.
Ordinarily those summoned for jury duty in Stanly County report to a third floor room in the county courthouse in Albemarle. In Stewart’s trial, prospective jurors will complete a questionnaire asking many of the kinds of questions normally asked by attorneys during the selection process.
Strickland said if they fill them out in the courtroom, they could be handed a list of proposed witnesses so they could identify to the court anybody they knew or had a relationship to who might testify at trial.
The courtroom is on the fourth floor.
Once empaneled, the jury will be brought to Carthage for the trial and kept away from the public while the trial proceeds, Webb said.
“Once selected and bused to Carthage, the court will order they be sequestered during lunch,” he said. “They will be taken to a place set by the sheriff of Moore County, then escorted back by the bailiffs. The sheriff will provide a break area for the morning and afternoon breaks.”
There was discussion as to whether Stewart should be brought back to the Moore County Detention Center on weekends or kept in the Stanly County jail. Webb is inclined to order transport, and asked Maj. Ronnie Fields, of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office if he’d been in touch with officials in the other county.
“I have been in contact with the jail administrator and the sheriff of Stanly County,” Fields said. “They are willing to work with us any way your honor sees fit.”
Webb said he believes it would be better to transport the defendant back to Moore County.
Hundreds of Stanly County residents will receive summonses to report on four dates for service as jurors in this trial, Webb said. The first group will report July 11, with others arriving July 18 25 and Aug. 1. He asked whether the state’s mental health examination of Stewart — ordered last October — had been completed.
“He was to go today, but I told Amy Taylor at the state hospital that he would be in court,” Strickland said. “He is set to go next Monday, or later this week.”
In other pretrial motions the court granted a motion for “complete recordation but for bench conferences” brought by the defense.
“We aren’t having any bench conferences,” Webb said.
Webb denied a defense motion that the state put on record any reason for a peremptory challenge of minority residents but will consider whether the record will note the race of jurors. Jurors will be brought into the courtroom as a group of 12 to start with, and the court will consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether to allow any particular one to be questioned out of the presence and hearing of the others. After that 12 are seated, the others will be excused to another room.
A request from the defense that relatives and others wishing to take the stand to offer “victim impact” testimony first put what they will say in writing caused a stir among the dozen or so who sat together Monday afternoon.
“Your honor, people have a right to be heard on this,” Strickland said. “We could have two or three for each victim. When they get on the stand, they may want to say something they didn’t write down, or think of something that just occurred to them.”
Webb deferred his ruling until trial.
Megerian’s motion that the death penalty is prohibited by treaties and international law and similar motions were denied, but preserved for the record.
Any further pretrial motions should be filed and heard in administrative sessions of the court before a civil session set for June 27, Webb said. He set, tentatively, 2 p.m. on that date to hear last minute motions providing the civil calendar permits.
“Jury selection starts two weeks from then,” Webb said.
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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