Man gets life in prison for nursing home slayings

CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) - September 3, 2011

Stewart, 47, will not face the death penalty because jurors found him guilty of second-degree murder, meaning they believe he lacked the premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first-degree conviction. Instead, Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb sentenced the disabled painter and National Guard veteran to between roughly 128 and 160 years in prison.

"That man killed my mom like she was a roach," said Linda Feola, whose mother, 98-year-old Louise DeKler, was shot at close range by Stewart at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage on March 29, 2009. "That man will not be where my mom is. There is no way. I've heard tell he was saved. Not in this world."

Stewart, who plans to appeal the verdict, looked on without visible reaction as relatives of the victims voiced their grief and anger before the sentence was pronounced.

"It feels like you've had a part of your body removed that you know you can't ever get back again," said Bernice Presnell, whose mother, 75-year-old Tessie Garner, was among the victims.

The victims at the nursing home, along with DeKler and Garner, were Jesse Musser, 88; Margaret Johnson, 89; John Goldston, 78; Bessie Hedrick, 78; Lillian Dunn, 89; and Jerry Avant, 39, a Coast Guard veteran and nurse worked at the facility.

"If he could go back and fix this in some way I know he would do that," said Jonathan Megerian, one of Stewart's lawyers. "And I know that he is honestly full of remorse, for what that's worth."

Stewart, who did not testify during the month-long trial, was acquitted of two charges of attempted first-degree murder involving two victims who were wounded but not killed. He was convicted on multiple assault and firearms charges in addition to the eight murder charges.

There was never any doubt that Stewart arrived at Pinelake that Sunday morning with four firearms, three of which he brought inside with him. He was looking for his wife, Wanda Neal, who had left him about two weeks earlier and who worked at the nursing home. She was safely in a locked ward, but Stewart walked the halls for about five minutes, shooting people seemingly at random.

He shot defenseless, elderly residents as they sat in wheelchairs and as they lay in bed, walking up to within a few feet of some of them before pointing his 12-gauge shotgun and firing. As nurse Avant lay mortally wounded on the floor, he was attended by his fiancDee, a fellow employee.

"He knew he was not going to make it, and he just wanted me to pray with him," said Jill DeGarmo. "I know he did not leave this earth with hatred in his heart for anyone."

Neal tried to commit suicide on the eve of the trial, but recovered and testified against her ex-husband, saying she left him after becoming fed up with his jealousy and short temper. After the verdict, she said she was satisfied.

"He got what he deserved," she said. "I hope he rots in hell."

The verdict is at least a partial victory for Stewart's defense team, which kept him off death row by arguing that Stewart was too addled to be capable of the premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

They also argued that Stewart suffered from mental illness including depression and borderline personality disorder, and that he had been taking regular doses of the prescription sleep aid Ambien far in excess of the recommended limit. Combined with prescriptions for an antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug, they argued, it made Stewart essentially a lethal sleepwalker.

Such so-called "diminished capacity" defenses are rare, and have only been allowed in North Carolina courts since 1988. Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland said after the verdict that he would have preferred a conviction on first-degree charges.

"I apologize to the families for not being able to get the convictions we were hoping to get," he said. "The jury evidently felt there was something to his defense."

Jurors declined to talk with reporters after the trial concluded. The jury had been picked about an hour's drive west, in Stanly County, because of concerns that Stewart couldn't get a fair trial in the place where the massacre happened.

As the verdicts were read, victims' relatives broke down and cried or embraced each other, all the while looking at Stewart, who remained impassive.

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

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