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Woman gets home confinement in husband's fatal hospital shooting

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A judge has decided that an Elkview woman who shot her husband to death in his hospital bed should spend no more time in prison for the crime.

Rhonda Stewart, 56, will get credit for the time she has already served in jail and on home confinement. If she cooperates, she will be free in six years. 

She sat motionless throughout the long hearing, but was visibly shaking as Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman read his decision.

"She has already been incarcerated for a period of time," Kaufman said. "And she has had no supervision problems on home confinement.

"She has repeatedly expressed remorse and shame," the judge said. "She has expressed her belief, and I believe her, that no excuse is adequate.

"This understanding of life and of death comes from Ms. Stewart herself."

In 2009 a jury found Stewart guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Sammy Stewart and Kaufman sentenced her to life in prison with a chance for parole. The state Supreme Court overturned that and ordered a new trial, saying a jury should have heard about Stewart's domestic abuse.

Instead, she pleaded guilty earlier this year to second-degree murder with a firearm. The possible penalty was 10 to 40 years in prison.

With no second jury, Kaufman was the one who had to weigh the evidence that Stewart had been physically, emotionally and sexually abused by the man she had been with since age 14.

Stewart's two daughters and one psychiatrist testified during the hearing about that abuse and how it may have affected her actions on June 13, 2009. Prosecutors said the woman visited her husband in an intensive care unit, became angry with him and then drove home to retrieve a gun.

Witnesses said she calmly walked into the hospital with the gun in her purse, went to his beside and shot him in the head.

At her trial, Stewart became hysterical on the witness stand and said she planned to kill herself but accidentally shot him.

At Tuesday's hearing, her two daughters testified that Stewart was the victim of years of abuse at the hands of their father. They asked the judge not to send her back to prison.

Mickey Stewart said, "I do not approve of what happened. But I would like my mother to be on home confinement. She has spent 53 years being a victim of abuse."

She described the family home as one where physical violence inflicted by Sammy Stewart on his wife and daughters was frequent.

"He could be very good," she said of her father. "When he was bad there could be Hell to pay. No child should have to live through that. No woman should."

Her sister, Samantha Stewart, was often sent to a friend's home to escape the threats. Mickey Stewart was often sent to her room with dinner and told to lock the door.

Samantha Stewart called her childhood "dark and lonely."

"Mother said, 'don't confront him,'" she said. "Just shut up and get away."

Prosecutor Mark Plants asked each daughter if they believed their mother was in imminent danger at the hospital the day she shot their father. They said no.

Samantha Stewart read a statement that in part said, "I know that she regrets what she done and regrets putting other people in danger. I just hope now they understand why."

Stewart has been on home confinement since Kaufman released her from jail upon the overturning of her case last year. Her daughters said she is a good caretaker for her eight grandchildren.

Stewart spoke at the hearing, telling the judge she was sorry.

"I don't know what happened to me that day," she said. "I don't have a clue what happened. I was out of my mind. But I am sorry for what I've done. I'm truly, truly sorry to everyone that I scared."

Dr. Christy Cooper-Leckie, a West Virginia University psychiatrist, testified that she believed Stewart's actions were prompted by the years of abuse. She also said she believed Stewart intended to kill herself and not her husband.

She said she evaluated Stewart twice in January and February of 2012 and again Tuesday morning.

"I didn't even recognize her," she said. "She looks more put together. Her symptoms have improved, but they are still there."

Cooper-Leckie said Stewart's judgment on the day at the hospital was clouded by depression, fear and her mental state from abuse.

Plants asked her, "How could she differentiate between right and wrong right up to that time of the shooting, then magically does not know right from wrong?"

"I don't think she went in to kill him," the doctor said. "I think she went in to kill herself. But her thinking was not clear or logical. It had to end. She could not go on living like that."

In exchange for her guilty plea, the prosecutor agreed to stand silent at the sentencing hearing and not object to a request for home confinement.

After the hearing, Plants said he believed the state maximized the possible penalty, considering the evidence of domestic abuse. But he has made it clear he believed Stewart should have been penalized more harshly.

At her plea hearing in January, Plants said, "He was ill and in a coma. He woke up and said something that made her angry. She returned with a gun, fired the gun and killed him where he lay in a hospital bed.

"I think anytime you murder someone you should spend the rest of your life in prison, or be executed for it," he said then.

Following her sentencing, Plants said this case was unusual in that most murders pinned to domestic violence occur in the midst of a violent incident.

"And the defense is usually self-defense," he said.

Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cherylc@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832.


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