The West Virginia Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for Rhonda Stewart, a 43-year old accused of killing her husband. Back in 2009, Ronda Stewart shot her estranged husband while he was in the intensive care unit at Charleston Area Medical Center. She claimed that she suffered from Battered Woman’s Syndrome, but was nonetheless sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 15 years. The West Virginia Supreme Court’s 3-2 decision reversed this conviction.
The Supreme Court’s reasoning was that Rhonda Stewart was never given a fair trial. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman never permitted evidence of battered women’s syndrome into the trial. Had evidence been admitted, the Supreme Court stated, the jury might have reasonably found that Stewart’s behavior was affected by years of abuse.
Background of the case is as follows: Stewart had been married to her husband, Sammy Stewart for 38 years (she was 16 when they married; he was 29). Husband and wife were estranged for several years, so that when Sammy was admitted to intensive care, he ordered Rhonda to leave. Rhonda later decided to go back to the hospital allegedly to commit suicide in front of her husband because “[she] wanted him to know that [she] wouldn’t bother him any more.” Instead, according to her testimony, Rhonda Stewart’s pistol accidentally went off when she tried to wake her husband up.
One of the witnesses, a health unit coordinator for the MICU unit, testified that she heard Sammy Stewart’s monitor beeping, and entered his room to find Rhonda “standing there with a gun to [his] head.” Rhonda Stewart was arrested and indicted for first-degree murder. At her trial, the prosecutor claimed that Stewart intentionally and maliciously sought to kill a helpless man. Judge Kaufman then made the decision to not admit Battered Women’s Syndrome evidence, stating: “There is no case law that existed in West Virginia that extends that defense to this remoteness in time.” So Stewart’s trial proceeded without the evidence, and Stewart has sat in jail since March of 2010.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm believe that the West Virginia Supreme Court made the right decision. While Stewart could yet be convicted of first-degree murder (her abuse allegedly took place three years before the shooting), it is important for all relevant evidence to be admitted. That Stewart was an abused spouse could be a significant factor in the jury’s decision making.
Cases like Stewart’s are the reason why it’s important for every criminal suspect to have a West Virginia criminal defense attorney to represent him or her. It is easy to condemn someone accused of committing murder or aggravated assault, but often the reality is far less black and white. Often, there may be mitigating circumstances that turn an obvious murder into heat-of-passion manslaughter — still a killing crime, but not premeditated. Too often, the wrong person is accused of committing a crime, and without a defense attorney, he or she could convicted on the basis of flawed evidence. It is far too easy for a trial to go wrong. That is why, if you or your loved one are a suspect in a crime, you should find an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.