Was accused nursing home shooter bent on revenge or drug-addled?
Posted September 1, 2011 7:36 a.m. EDT
Updated September 1, 2011 1:29 p.m. EDT
Carthage, N.C. — Jurors must decide whether a man accused of opening fire inside a Carthage nursing home two years ago was intent on making his wife pay for leaving him or was simply on too much medication to know what he was doing.
Prosecutors and a defense attorney presented their closing arguments Thursday in the month-long trial of Robert Stewart, who 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.
Jurors are expected to begin their deliberations Friday.
Moore County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Bartholomew told jurors that Stewart went to Pinelake, where his then-wife, Wanda Neal, worked, to track her down after she had left him two weeks earlier.
"What do we know about Robert Stewart? We know that he was possessive, manipulative and he’s angry, and he had Wanda scared,” Bartholomew said.
She grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and loudly racked it, noting that Stewart carried four weapons into the nursing home and repeatedly reloaded during his shooting rampage, which ended only when a Carthage police office shot him in the shoulder.
"He went to Pinelake Health and Rehab Center to tie up loose ends," she said. "He went there with a fixed purpose, and he didn’t stop until he was stopped."
Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian said Stewart's crumbling marriage doesn't explain the shooting spree, noting that Stewart's only previous criminal history was a single drunken driving charge 25 years ago.
"He worked all his life until he was disabled, and one Sunday morning, he gets in his car and kills eight people? Doesn’t that need some kind of explanation?” Megerian asked jurors.
The defense has argued that Stewart couldn't control his actions because of an overdose of prescription medication.
Evidence presented during the trial showed that Stewart had 12 times the normal dose of Ambien, a sleep aid, in his system more than nine hours after the shootings. He also had Lexapro and Xanax, two anti-depressants, and Benadryl, an antihistamine, in his system.
Megerian argued that the medications left Stewart in a hypnotic state called parasomnia, so he cannot be held legally responsible for the shootings.
"I don’ t think we can blow off the Ambien. I don’t think we can blow off the Xanax," he told jurors. "People have killed themselves in parasomnia. People have jumped off balconies. People have killed other people in parasomnia.”
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge James Webb ruled that, in order to find Stewart guilty of first-degree murder, jurors must be convinced that he was in control of his actions.
Stewart cried out for help two days before the shootings, Megerian said, noting that he went to his family doctor in tears. The lawyer chastised a nurse practitioner, saying she improperly gave Stewart anxiety medication without any regard to his taking Ambien.
"She gave him a bag of pills and sent him out the door," Megerian said.
Webb has rejected a defense request to allow the jury the option of convicting Stewart of manslaughter, but they will be allowed to convict him of either first-degree or second-degree murder, depending on whether they believe he planned on shooting his victims.
A second-degree murder conviction doesn't carry the possibility of a death sentence.