Local News

Toxicologist: Sleep drug can produce hypnotic state

Posted August 24, 2011 12:07 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2011 6:44 p.m. EDT

— The sleep-aid Ambien is powerful enough to leave people unaware of things they have done, a Boone toxicologist testified Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of opening fire inside a Carthage nursing home two years ago.

Robert Stewart is charged with gunning down seven patients and a nurse in the March 29, 2009, shootings at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. He could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian has maintained that Stewart doesn't recall what happened the day of the shootings and can't be held legally responsible. He told jurors that Stewart was taking several medications and overdosed on Ambien the night before the shootings – a blood test taken hours later showed he had 12 times the normal dose in his system – putting him in a hypnotic state that left him powerless over his actions.

Andrew Mason, a former state toxicologist whom the defense hired to test Stewart's blood, called Ambien a "very potent sedative or hypnotic drug" that has many side-effects, including amnesia, anxiety, disorientation and emotional disability.

Some Ambien users have reported driving, preparing meals or committing acts of violence and having no recollection of the events, Mason said.

"These incidents apparently occur either in a state of incomplete sleep or incomplete arousal from sleep," he said. “They are shown evidence of (actions) after the fact, and that they have no knowledge of experiencing them.”

Stewart also was taking Lexapro and Xanax, two anti-depressants, and had taken Benadryl, an antihistamine, at the time of the shootings, and Mason testified that the combination "increases the probability that adverse effects will be noted."

Jurors reviewed some of the 400 pages of Stewart's medical records and records from a pharmacy showing more than two dozen refills of Ambien for him.

Prosecutors argued during the first three weeks of the trial that Stewart went to Pinelake, where his then-wife, Wanda Neal, worked, to track her down and that he was so heavily armed that nothing was going to stop him.

Neal had left Stewart about two weeks earlier.

After a two-day delay because of a sick juror, the defense began presenting its case Wednesday.

Rev. Horace Warwick testified that Stewart, who had attended his Aberdeen church for more than 30 years, called him late in the night about three days before the shootings. Stewart was acting "very radical" and used a lot of profanity during the call, he said.

"He was highly disturbed, upset. He sounded like a drunk man to me," Warwick said. "Something was going on. He was highly distraught."

Stewart complained that his barn burned down, his wife had just left him and he had prostate cancer, Warwick said, adding that he tried unsuccessfully to console him.

Warwick said he tried to call Stewart the next morning to talk to him, but no one answered.

Harold Dean Norris, an uncle of Stewart's, testified that his nephew called him around the same time that Neal left. Stewart told him that he didn't know what to do other than relocate and start his life over again.

"He asked me, would I pray for him," Norris said. "I would say he was a nervous wreck. I wouldn't say he was drinking, but he seemed very upset (and was) crying."