CARTHAGE, N.C. – A North Carolina man was convicted Saturday of second-degree murder in the shooting deaths of eight people at a nursing home in 2009, meaning he will not be eligible for the death penalty.
The jury deliberated for two days before reaching the verdict against Robert Stewart, a 47-year-old disabled painter and National Guard veteran whose estranged wife worked at the facility.
Immediately after the verdicts were read, Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb convened a sentencing hearing, at which victims' family members were called to testify about their loved ones.
"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."
Constance Evans, the daughter of 78-year-old Bessie Hedrick, stared straight at Stewart and said, "You're the one."
"This is not closure," she told Stewart, who showed no visible emotion. "Your mother is sitting right behind you."
The victims at the nursing home, along with DeKler and Hedrick, were Jesse Musser, 88; Margaret Johnson, 89; John Goldston, 78; Tessie Garner, 75; Lillian Dunn, 89; and Jerry Avant, 39, who worked as a nurse at the facility.
Sentencing will be imposed by Webb. Even at the minimum end of the possible spectrum, Stewart faces the likelihood of life behind bars.
Stewart was acquitted of two charges of attempted first-degree murder involving two victims who were wounded but not killed, but was convicted on multiple assault and firearms charges in addition to the eight murder charges.
The verdict is at least a partial victory for Stewart's defense team, which had argued that mental illness and a cocktail of prescription drugs rendered him incapable of fully understanding his actions, and therefore ineligible for a first-degree murder conviction. While never denying that Stewart carried out the deadly shooting, his lawyers hoped to keep him off death row.
"This guy is on trial for his life," defense lawyer Jonathan Megerian said during his closing remarks to jurors on Thursday.
Stewart was searching for his estranged wife, an employee at Pinelake, when he showed up at the nursing home with four firearms and a bag bulging with ammunition.
Unable to find his wife, who was safe in a locked ward, Stewart began firing his 12-gauge shotgun seemingly at random, killing elderly residents as they sat in wheelchairs or lay in bed. Three other people were wounded before a Carthage police officer shot and wounded Stewart, ending the rampage.
Prosecutors were seeking a conviction on first-degree charges, arguing that Stewart's actions that day -- strapping on holsters, stuffing the bag with ammunition, shooting up his wife's car before going inside Pinelake -- showed deliberation and premeditation, two conditions necessary for a first-degree conviction.
"Medication is not what caused this," Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland told jurors in his closing remarks. "The defendant's mental defects or deficiencies is not what caused this."
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