Stewart trial delayed by jury illness


Stewart, 47, has admitted he was the shooter who went on a killing spree March 29, 2009 at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage. He faces eight counts of first-degree murder - one for each of the seven elderly patients and the nurse he gunned down at the home.

Three others were injured - including a Carthage police officer who ultimately stopped Stewart by shooting him in the chest.

Stewart's attorneys have said that he was prescribed a dangerous mix of too many sleeping pills and anti-depressants, and that he didn't know what he was doing and doesn't remember the shooting.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They say he went to the nursing home looking for his estranged wife, who was an employee.

Wanda Neal is expected to testify this week. She did not take the witness stand last week as expected after she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt.

Stewart's defense attorneys have questioned her competency, and Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb ruled Monday that attorneys will be allowed to bring up her medical records.

Neal may testify as early as Tuesday, and her testimony could be important in helping prosecutors establish Stewart's state of mind in the weeks before the massacre.

Katherine Boyatt, a lawyer representing Neal in a civil case related to the shootings, said in court Monday that Neal's medical records from the recent suicide attempt should not be allowed as evidence in the case, as they have nothing to do with what happened more than two years ago.

"We believe they are not admissible," she told the judge. "They don't go toward anything exculpatory or to witness credibility."

But Franklin Wells, one of Stewart's lawyers, said that a suicide attempt, involuntary commitment to psychiatric care and recent prescriptions for anti-psychotic medications could be important pieces of information for jurors hearing Neal's testimony.

"Our position is certainly that would be the kind of thing a jury would want to hear when considering whether to believe parts or all of her testimony," Wells said.

Neal's recent suicide attempt was revealed in court last week, on the day she was originally scheduled to testify. Defense lawyers, who learned about it that day, objected that they needed access to her medical records and time to review them before being able to cross-examine her.

Boyatt wanted Webb to privately review Neal's medical records and then make a decision as to whether any part of them could be used by attorneys, something Webb was loathe to do, saying it was the kind of decision that came back to haunt judges in appellate courts.

"That puts the court in a terrible, untenable position it does not want to be put in," Webb said.

Ultimately, he decided to allow the potential use of Neal's medical records, but said he would carefully weigh any objection from prosecutors during Neal's testimony. The tussle might all be moot if Stewart's lawyers don't make reference to Neal's medical history. Attorney Jonathan Megerian said he has no current plans to introduce the records as evidence, but added that things could change during testimony.

"It's possible that if we get into an argument about her credibility, that I may remind her she's been committed involuntarily in the last week or two," he said.

If the trial resumes Tuesday, Neal might testify, and Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland said the prosecution might be able to rest its case on Thursday. If that happens, Megerian said he could begin calling witnesses next Monday and be finished with the defense case that Wednesday.

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