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Home confinement for a shocking murder

So here's the deal: A woman who was abused for years can visit her estranged husband in the intensive care unit, become angry, drive home to get a gun, return to the hospital, shoot him in the head and kill him in the ICU . . . .

And wind up on home confinement.

This may be an appropriate sentence in this particular case, but it shocks the public conscience nonetheless.

On June 13, 2009, Rhonda Kay Stewart shot and killed her husband, Sammy, in the ICU of Charleston Area Medical Center's Memorial Hospital.

At her trial, Rhonda Stewart said it was an accident. She said she intended to kill herself in front of her husband, but that he had nudged her elbow and she accidentally shot him instead.

A jury of her peers rejected that claim and found her guilty of first-degree murder, but recommended mercy.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman took this into consideration and sentenced Stewart to life in prison, but with mercy, which meant she could be paroled after 15 years in prison.

She appealed to the state Supreme Court, contending that she suffered from battered women's syndrome - though the abuse had ended at some point.

The court, by a 3-2 margin, ordered a second trial so the defense could present evidence of longstanding domestic abuse.

Two of the justices balked.

"At trial, Rhonda Stewart said that the killing of Sammy Stewart was an accident," Justice Brent Benjamin wrote in his dissent.

"Not self-defense. Not fear of imminent threat. Not diminished capacity. Not insanity. At trial, the killing wasn't her fault; it was an accident. The jury didn't buy it. On appeal the defense changed: it was not Rhonda Stewart that killed Sammy Stewart - it was something else."

Justice Robin Jean Davis also dissented.

"Absent a statute to the contrary, no court in the country has allowed a defendant to introduce evidence of the battered woman's syndrome when she alleges only that the crime was an accident," she wrote.

In February, Stewart pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. On Tuesday, Kaufman sentenced her again - adjusted for time served, to home confinement for 10 years.

When may women use the battered woman defense in murder cases?

When may they not use it?

It will be a long time before the public is clear in its own mind on what is right.

 


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