Testimony about abuse may have swayed jurors in murder case
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some of the jurors who found Rhonda Stewart guilty of first-degree murder in 2009 say they would have considered her case differently if they'd heard testimony of her abuse.
Twelve jurors deliberated for about five hours in December of that year and found her guilty of shooting her husband Sammy Stewart to death in his hospital bed a few months earlier. She was sentenced to life in prison with mercy after those jurors decided she could come before a parole board after serving 15 years.
But their verdict was overturned by the West Virginia Supreme Court on appeal and a new trial was to be held. Instead, Stewart, 56, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge or second-degree murder with a firearm.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman heard testimony of years of abuse suffered by Stewart and her children and sentenced her to 10 years to be served on home confinement. She will receive credit for four years already served.
"Yes, I've been following the case," said Peter Hetu, one of those jurors. He now lives in Arizona. "I am kind of glad about the turnout.
"I never did feel good about the first trial," Hetu said. "Everything was suppressed. We knew there was some abuse, we didn't know the details."
What jurors never heard was that Stewart alleged physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, even after they were separated years ago. Those incidents included being raped at knifepoint.
"I'm kind of glad she had another chance," Hetu said of the Supreme Court decision. "I still have a problem with her shooting him, but now I also understand and have more empathy for her.
"I feel like a prison term probably wouldn't do any good," Hetu said. "I think she's very remorseful about it. From her actions in the courtroom, I don't think she was in her right mind."
Hetu, a retired schoolteacher, said he wished jurors could have listened to testimony about her abuse.
"It might have changed the way the jury felt about it," he said.
Lorraine Robinson of Charleston also served on that jury. She said she remembers the case well and has changed her mind about Stewart.
"Now it seems there's more evidence about why she did it," said Robinson, 82. "I'm definitely glad this has happened. And I'm glad she got less than what she would have.
"That's wonderful," she said. "I'm absolutely glad she got home confinement. Anybody who puts up with that, yes."
But Steven Bowles of St. Albans said he wouldn't have voted on Stewart's case any differently if he had known about the domestic violence. He admits he hadn't heard much about the case since he sat on the jury three and a half years ago.
"That's ridiculous," he said, when told about the case's history and outcome. "And she pleaded guilty, she said she did it. You still don't have the right to kill someone."
Bowles said he recalls listening to the testimony from Stewart and nurses in the hospital.
"None of them agreed with her story, that he reached up and grabbed her and the gun went off," he said. "That's what made my decision for me."
But it wasn't easy for the jurors to agree, he said.
"It was very difficult to come to a decision," Bowles said. "The majority of us wanted to give her life without mercy. But basically, after long deliberations we decided on mercy.
"Personally, I think you have the right to defend yourself," he said. "If he would have come home and been beating on her, but to go in and shoot him while he was defenseless, no."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832.