N.C. nursing home killer gets life in prison

Conflicting feelings flooded the news and Web this past weekend, for Robert Stewart, who killed eight people in a North Carolina nursing home in 2009, received life instead of death in the outcome of his murder trial.

On September 3, Moore County jurors convicted Stewart on eight counts of second-degree murder for shooting and killing seven elderly residents and one nurse at Pinelake Health & Rehabilitation Center in Carthage, N.C. As many observers have pointed out, Stewart avoided first-degree murder charges and the death penalty because of the now-dubbed “Ambien defense.”

As I wrote a few months ago, Stewart admitted to the killings before his trial even got under way, allowing his attorneys to construct this argument: He was under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, namely Ambien, at the time of the shootings and was therefore not in control of his actions. It’s a state of being called “automatism.” (The families of those who were murdered probably called it something less fit for print, but likely with a more accurate label.)

Former SWAT commander Lt. Dan Marcou of PoliceOne.com followed the trial and called the verdict an “outrage.” He wrote this particularly telling account on his blog earlier in the week:

Jill Degarmo was a nursing home employee and survivor, who had held the hand of her fiancée and fellow employee Jerry Avant. They prayed together as he lay dying from the wounds senselessly inflicted on him by Stewart.

Jill Degarmo sat through the trial and made the following observation.

“Every person who has been in this courtroom has either shed a tear or showed that this affected them somehow. The only person I've not seen show any emotion or caring is Robert Stewart.”

The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., had a slightly different take on the situation, writing in an editorial that while the families of those who died may not be satisfied, Stewart’s 142-year life sentence should still be considered “justice” for the surrounding community.

Lost in the reaction to the verdict are thoughts from Stewart’s ex-wife, Wanda Neal, who was the target of his rampage in the nursing home. Neal was working in the facility that day, but she hid in a bathroom when people began screaming that a madman had entered the building and started firing at residents.

Neal had become so overcome with grief that when she was to take the stand in August during the trial, she attempted suicide by mixing a variety of drugs. It was reported afterward that Neal admitted she “wanted all this to end. Everything was built up, I know a lot of the family members hold everything against me. I understand, and I can’t take it no more.”

The argument of whether or not Stewart received a just punishment will burn for as long as those who were affected by the murders walk this Earth. It will be truly unfortunate, however, if those people turn their disappointment with the jury’s decision into ire toward Neal. Had she been the first and only of Stewart’s victims that fateful day, the headlines would have read far different, but no less sad.

Topics: Articles