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Stewart agrees to plea in husband's slaying

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An Elkview woman who walked into CAMC Memorial Hospital in 2009 and shot and killed her husband admitted Thursday to murder charges.

Rhonda K. Stewart, 56, entered a Kennedy V. Frazier plea to second-degree murder with a firearm Thursday in the shooting death of her husband, Sammy Stewart.

Under such a plea, defendants do not give a statement of guilt, but agree to a plea deal because they believe a jury might convict them of a crime with a longer sentence if the case goes to trial.

Stewart was previously convicted of first-degree murder, but in a 3-2 decision, the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned that verdict. Justices said Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman erred in the initial trial by disallowing evidence that suggested Stewart suffered years of abuse under her husband.

Rhonda Stewart's defense lawyer, Harold Salsbery, has argued that the abuse caused a longstanding mental instability that eventually spurred Stewart to shoot her husband.

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants said Thursday that both sides would have been taking a risk by going to trial.

A jury could have again found Stewart guilty of first-degree murder, a charge that carries a mandatory life sentence in West Virginia. But jurors could also have found her guilty of a much lesser charge, allowing for Stewart's freedom on time already served in prison, Plants said.

Kaufman ruled Thursday that Stewart could remain on home confinement at least until her sentencing on March 19. She has been out of prison since the Supreme Court reversal last year.

In June 2009, Rhonda Stewart and one of her daughters were visiting Sammy Stewart, who was in treatment for pancreatitis and alcohol withdrawal at CAMC Memorial.

When Sammy Stewart awoke, he told his wife to leave and referred to her by her maiden name, Rhonda K. Boyd. The two were separated at the time, and Sammy Stewart was seeing another woman, according to testimony at the previous trial.

"I knew what he meant," Rhonda Stewart testified in 2009. "He had often told me it would never be over until he said it was over."

Rhonda Stewart had been in a relationship with her husband since she was 14 years old, her lawyer said Thursday.

Rhonda Stewart, who had resolved to kill herself in front of her husband, went home from the hospital and retrieved a handgun, according the 2011 Supreme Court opinion. When she got back to the hospital, she and her husband had a brief tussle before she shot him in the head.

Plants said Thursday that defense experts would have testified that Stewart's husband repeatedly physically and sexually abused her during their marriage, and that she "lacked the capacity" to commit premeditated murder.

Stewart faces up to 10 to 40 years on the second-degree murder charge. The judge could choose to allow the woman to serve the sentence on home confinement, Plants said.

Several family members sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery Thursday behind Rhonda Stewart. Plants said that no one on Sammy Stewart's side of the family disagreed with the decision to plea.

Rhonda Stewart and her family would not comment after the hearing.

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


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