Local News

Carthage nursing home shooter will spend life in prison

Posted September 3, 2011 1:17 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2011 7:56 a.m. EDT

— A jury on Saturday found Robert Stewart guilty of second-degree murder in the 2009 shooting rampage at a Carthage nursing home that left eight people dead.

He was sentenced to 141 to 179 years in prison.

Stewart, 47, gunned down seven patients and a nurse in the March 29, 2009, shootings at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center.

His sentence was announced after the victims' family members made statements to the court. Stewart could have been sentenced to death if the jury had found him guilty of first-degree murder.

Prosecutor Peter Strickland said he was "disappointed" that Stewart wasn't convicted on first-degree murder. Some of the victims' family members were visibly upset at the jury's decision on the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

"I believe he deserved first-degree (and) life in prison without parole," said Jill Degarmo, whose fiancé, Jerry Avant, was killed in the shooting spree.

Holly Foster, the daughter of shooting victim Jesse Musser, agreed.

"I feel like my dad died for 15 years. I'm happy with the total number of years. I just think our loved ones, we deserved to hear first-degree," Foster said. "I don't feel like justice was done."

The jury also found Stewart guilty of assault with a deadly weapon for shooting and injuring Michael Lee Cotton, who was visiting the nursing home, and Carthage police officer Justin Garner, who was credited with ending the rampage. The jury could have found Stewart guilty of a more serious charge, attempted first-degree murder, for those shootings.

Jurors also found him guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer and guilty of pointing a gun. They deliberated for about 5½ hours Friday before recessing for the night and returning Saturday morning.

Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian argued during the month-long trial that Stewart was taking various prescription medicines at the time of the shootings and had overdosed on the sleep aid Ambien the previous night. The combination of drugs in his system left him in a hypnotic state where he was unable to control his actions, Megerian said.

"We're extremely relieved, and we're glad this is over," Megerian said.

Prosecutors argued that Stewart was on a vengeful mission to track down his estranged wife, Wanda Neal, who worked at the nursing home, because she had left him two weeks earlier.

As Neal was exiting the courthouse Saturday, she said she hopes Stewart "rots in hell."