Man Kills 8 People in Nursing Home in 2009: Trial Begins Using Prescription Drug Defense
Paragraph 17 reads: "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."
SSRI Stories Note: The Physicians Desk Reference states that antidepressants can cause a craving for alcohol and can cause alcohol abuse. Also, the liver cannot metabolize the antidepressant and the alcohol simultaneously, thus leading to higher levels of both alcohol and the antidepressant in the human body.
Published: 06:59 AM, Wed Jul 13, 2011Robert Stewart admits slayings at nursing home as part of defense strategy
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 email@example.com or (910) 486-3583.