Robert Stewart admits slayings at nursing home as part of defense strategy — (The Fayetteville Observer)

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Fayetteville Observer

Published: 06:59 AM, Wed Jul 13, 2011

By Michael Zennie, Staff writer

ALBEMARLE – Robert Stewart admitted in court Tuesday that he killed eight people March 29, 2009, at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage.

Lawyers for the man charged with eight counts of first degree murder said the admission was part of their strategy to argue that Stewart was under the influence of alcohol and doctor-prescribed medication at the time of the shootings, and as such, is not legally guilty for his actions.

The issue came to light shortly after prosecutors finished their selection of potential jurors in the death-penalty case.

The 12 Stanly County residents whittled down by Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland included three men who have backgrounds in criminal justice, including a retired U.S. Marshal, a woman whose cousin was murdered five years ago and man who said the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.

However, defense lawyers must still get their say and no jury is seated.

To get an accurate picture of whether these potential jurors would be fair to his client, Stewart’s lawyer Jonathan L. Megerian said, the defense team would have to understand whether the jurors could accept defenses of diminished mental capacity and automatism, both of which are allowed under North Carolina law.

Automatism is a mental state in which the defendant is not in control of his actions.

Before Stewart’s lawyers presented the information to potential jurors, though, they first explained it to Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb, without any potential jurors in the courtroom.

Webb questioned Stewart about whether he understood that his lawyers were about to admit to potential jurors he had killed eight people.

“Are you certain this is what you want to do?” Webb asked. “To suggest to the jury that you committed the acts with which you were charged, but that you are not guilty of those offenses.”

“Yes, sir,” Stewart replied with a nod. “I trust my attorneys and I desire to consent to them.”

When the 12 Stanly County residents were called back into the courtroom, Mergerian and Stewart’s other lawyer, Franklin E. Wells Jr., questioned them about whether they believed mental impairment could be a defense for first-degree murder charges.

“What this trial is not going to be about is whether he shot seven people in wheelchairs and a nurse,” Megerian said. “It’s going to be about was he in control of his actions, his state of mind at the time and was he under the influence of prescription drugs,”

Stewart could face the death penalty if convicted of killing seven patients and one employee in the Moore County nursing home two years ago.

Jury selection is taking place in Stanly County, where the court expects to have a better chance of seating an impartial panel.

Stewart, 47, is accused of walking into the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage and opening fire with a shotgun.

Three specific prescription medications emerged from Stewart’s lawyers questioning of potential jurors – Ambien, which is used to treat insomnia; Xanex, prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders; and Lexapro, an antidepressant.

The defense lawyers began asking each potential juror about those specific drugs – whether they had heard of them, whether they knew anyone who took them, whether they had any history with them themselves.

At one point, Wells asked a potential juror whether he thought uncontrollable behavior as a result of side affects from a combination of alcohol and the prescription drugs could be legally excusable.

“If it’s legally prescribed by a doctor and it makes people do bad things, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if he’s on taking illegal drugs, that’s something else.”

“So there’s a difference between legally prescribed drugs and street drugs,” Wells asked.

A similar line of questioning resulted in Webb dismissing one potential juror, a father with a degree in criminal justice.

Under questioning from Mergerian, the man said he did not believe that alcohol or medication could be an excuse for first-degree murder.

Prosecutors spent Monday and Tuesday morning weeding out potential jurors based on bias against the state’s case.

Some were dismissed because they said they could not support the death penalty. Others were sent home after they admitted personal experiences would get in the way of making an impartial decision.

Now its the defense team’s turn to thin the jury pool. The process is scheduled to begin again at 9:30 this morning.
Staff writer Michael Zennie can be reached at or (910) 486-3583.


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Man convicted of killing 8 in North Carolina nursing home, avoids death penalty — (

By Associated Press

Robert Stewart, shown at a court hearing in May 2009, was convicted Saturday of second-degree murder in the shooting deaths of eight people at a North Carolina nursing home.

CARTHAGE, North Carolina — Robert Stewart showed the same lack of emotion when a jury found him guilty of murder Saturday as witnesses say he displayed when he gunned down eight people at a North Carolina nursing home during one of the worst massacres in state history.

Stewart, 47, will not face the death penalty because jurors found him guilty of second-degree murder, meaning they believe he lacked the premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first-degree conviction. Instead, Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb sentenced the disabled painter and National Guard veteran to between roughly 128 and 160 years in prison.

“That man killed my mom like she was a roach,” said Linda Feola, whose mother, 98-year-old Louise DeKler, was shot at close range by Stewart at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage on March 29, 2009. “That man will not be where my mom is. There is no way. I’ve heard tell he was saved. Not in this world.”

Stewart, who plans to appeal the verdict, looked on without visible reaction as relatives of the victims voiced their grief and anger before the sentence was pronounced.

“It feels like you’ve had a part of your body removed that you know you can’t ever get back again,” said Bernice Presnell, whose mother, 75-year-old Tessie Garner, was among the victims.

The victims at the nursing home, along with DeKler and Garner, were Jesse Musser, 88; Margaret Johnson, 89; John Goldston, 78; Bessie Hedrick, 78; Lillian Dunn, 89; and Jerry Avant, 39, a Coast Guard veteran and nurse who worked at the facility.

“If he could go back and fix this in some way, I know he would do that,” said Jonathan Megerian, one of Stewart’s lawyers. “And I know that he is honestly full of remorse, for what that’s worth.”

Stewart, who did not testify during the month-long trial, was acquitted of two charges of attempted first-degree murder involving two victims who were wounded but not killed. He was convicted on multiple assault and firearms charges in addition to the eight murder charges.

There was never any doubt that Stewart arrived at Pinelake that Sunday morning with four firearms, three of which he brought inside with him. He was looking for his wife, Wanda Neal, who had left him about two weeks earlier and who worked at the nursing home. She was safely in a locked ward, but Stewart walked the halls for about five minutes, shooting people seemingly at random.

He shot defenseless, elderly residents as they sat in wheelchairs and as they lay in bed, walking up to within a few feet of some of them before pointing his 12-gauge shotgun and firing. As nurse Avant lay mortally wounded on the floor, he was attended by his fiancee, a fellow employee.

“He knew he was not going to make it, and he just wanted me to pray with him,” said Jill DeGarmo. “I know he did not leave this earth with hatred in his heart for anyone.”

Neal tried to commit suicide on the eve of the trial but recovered and testified against her ex-husband, saying she left him after becoming fed up with his jealousy and short temper. After the verdict, she said she was satisfied.

“He got what he deserved,” she said. “I hope he rots in hell.”

The verdict is at least a partial victory for Stewart’s defense team, which kept him off death row by arguing that Stewart was too addled to be capable of the premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

They also argued that Stewart suffered from mental illness including depression and borderline personality disorder and that he had been taking regular doses of the prescription sleep aid Ambien far in excess of the recommended limit. Combined with prescriptions for an antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug, they argued, it made Stewart essentially a lethal sleepwalker.