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Home confinement in husband's slaying

Chris Dorst
A judge on Tuesday allowed Rhonda K. Stewart to serve home confinement after she admitted earlier this year to shooting and killing her husband in 2009 as he lay in a CAMC Memorial hospital bed. Her lawyer, Harold Salsbery stands to her right.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A woman who admitted to walking into a hospital with a handgun and shooting her husband in the head will not serve her sentence in prison, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman sentenced Rhonda K. Stewart to a 10-year term on home confinement after she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges last month in the death of her husband, Sammy Stewart.

Stewart already has served four years in jail and prison, giving her credit toward the 10-year term.

Stewart was originally sentenced to life in prison for her conviction on first-degree murder charges, but the state Supreme Court overturned that verdict because the jury did not hear evidence that pointed to a history of psychologically devastating physical and verbal abuse that her husband levied on her over the years.

"I don't know what happened to me that day," Stewart said at her sentencing Tuesday. "I was out of my mind."

On June 13, 2009, she and her daughter visited Sammy Stewart, who was reportedly in treatment in CAMC Memorial Hospital for pancreatitis and alcohol withdrawal.

The Stewarts were separated at the time. When Sammy awoke, he told his wife and daughter to leave, referring to his wife by her maiden name, according to previous reports.

"My father looked at me and told me to get the hell out of the room," daughter Mickey Stewart testified Tuesday. "He was in a 'mood.'"

Rhonda Stewart left the hospital and returned about an hour later with a gun. Her lawyers have said that she was attempting to wake up her husband so he could watch her kill herself. Instead, he grabbed at her elbow and she panicked and shot him in the head.

During Tuesday's sentencing, Stewart's defense team called the woman's two daughters and a psychiatric expert to the stand to detail the abuse the woman suffered under her husband.

Mickey Stewart, the first to testify, said that her father routinely beat her mother and often turned his rage on his two daughters.

"When he was good, he could be very good," Mickey Stewart said. "When he was bad, there was hell to pay."

Rhonda Stewart routinely threw herself between her husband and her children to shield them from beatings. They referred to her as "our protector."

On one occasion, Sammy Stewart held a knife to his wife's throat and threatened to kill her if she did not comply with some demand, Mickey Stewart said.

He often told her that she was "fat," "stupid" and "couldn't do anything right," she said. Sometimes, he said that he would kill the children if she didn't "do what she was told."

Samantha Stewart, the other daughter, said that her father once chased her down in a car and tried to run her over. Her mother told her to run to a friend's house whenever he was in one of his abusive "moods," she said.

Both daughters said they did not approve of what their mother did to their father.

West Virginia University psychiatric expert Christi Cooper-Lehki testified Tuesday that Stewart suffered from battered women's syndrome and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the years of abuse from her husband, whom she has been with since she was 14.  

"She can still smell Sammy," Cooper-Lehki said. "She can still feel his touch on her."

Cooper-Lehki said that Stewart slipped into a psychotic episode in the minutes before she shot her husband and didn't have the faculties at the time to parse right from wrong.

She also penned a "legitimate" suicide note beforehand, indicating that she was sincere in her claim that she intended to kill herself in front of Sammy, Cooper-Lehki said.

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants pointed out that in the 53 minutes it took Stewart to drive back and forth from the hospital, she obeyed all of the traffic laws, parked perfectly in the hospital's lot, and slipped a gun in her purse, all suggesting that she had the capacity to understand what she was doing at the time.

Cooper-Lehki said that it is common for people to conform to societal rules during a psychotic episode, and that her husband touching her elbow while she was leaning over him triggered a reaction she could not control.

"I don't think she appreciated right from wrong while she was in front of him," she said.

Stewart's daughters both asked the judge to levy a home-confinement term.

"She has been in prison her entire life," Mickey Stewart said. "Sending her to prison is not the answer here. My dad's dead. He's not coming back."

As part of the plea, prosecutors agreed to stand silent during sentencing. Plants said after the hearing that he would not comment on whether he felt home confinement was appropriate for someone convicted of murder.

Plants said that members on both Rhonda Stewart's side and her husband's side of the family supported both the sentence and the plea.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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