Scars deep as NC nursing home shooting trial nears

July 9, 2011 - 11:44 AM
Nursing Home Shooting

FILE - In a May 28, 2009 file photo, Robert Kenneth Stewart attends a hearing in Moore County Superior Court in Carthage, N.C. Stewart faces eight counts of first-degree murder when his trial begins Monday, and prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if he’s convicted. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) — For two years, Wanda Luck has been trying to keep busy with two jobs, her children and her church to try to forget the day her husband barged into a North Carolina nursing home and killed seven elderly patients and a nurse.

Prosecutors say 47-year-old Robert Stewart's target in March 2009 was Luck, his estranged wife. The nurse's assistant survived by hiding in a bathroom inside a locked area for Alzheimer's patients at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage. Stewart was wounded by a police officer responding to the 911 calls and arrested soon after. He faces eight counts of first-degree murder when his trial begins Monday, and prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if he's convicted.

"She's just trying to keep her mind off everything," Luck's mother, Margaret Neal, told the Associated Press on Friday. "But even with staying busy, it's something you don't forget. You just don't forget."

The scars in this rural community run deep because of the shootings, which also left three others wounded. Many victims' relatives reached by the AP said they were still grieving and preferred not to talk.

Stewart's attorney, Jonathan Megerian, asked to move the trial to another county because of publicity. Moore County Superior Court Judge James Webb didn't grant that request, but he took the unusual step of picking a jury from Stanly County. That county seat, Albemarle, is about 60 miles west of Carthage. The jurors will be bused back and forth every day between the two cities during a trial that Megerian said could last two months.

He said his client had mental health issues and "didn't understand what he was doing."

But if the jury finds Stewart guilty, his lawyers have a contingency plan they hope will save him from death row, based on the contentious Racial Justice Act, according to court documents.

Although Stewart and the people nursing home victims are white, Stewart's attorneys will argue that race has unfairly played a role in capital punishment cases in Moore County. They say that Stewart should not face the death penalty because of that unfair past.

North Carolina is one of two states with such a law. Prosecutors and Republican lawmakers have criticized the act as too broad, but an effort to repeal it failed this year.

The judge has said he will wait until the jury reaches a verdict to decide if he will allow the state to seek the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Neal said the community is bracing for the trial. Her daughter still works at the nursing home and also took a second job as a waitress at a restaurant in Silver City. She's active in her church and spends a lot of time with her three children.

"It's her way of dealing with what happened," Neal said.

Luck had left Stewart about a month before the shootings and moved back to a home on the Neal family property, about half an hour from the nursing home.

Court documents showed that Stewart, a disabled painter nicknamed "Pee Wee" by his hunting buddies, and his wife had an on-again, off-again relationship that spread over many years and bookended other failed marriages. They first married as teenagers in the mid-1980s, a union that ended in divorce a few years later.

Even as they married several other people, Stewart still talked about her, friends said. They reunited and married each other — again — in June 2002.

Neal said her daughter and Stewart are now divorced, but Luck will be at the trial.

"Nothing is going to be OK until the trial is over," Neal said. "That's the only way everyone will get closure. ... She has flashbacks. We don't talk about it, though. It's too painful. We just want it to be over."

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Weiss reported from Charlotte.