Written by attorney Bill Powers

Ambien Defenses - Criminal Culpability in Cases Involving Mens Rea

Bill Powers Comments on Ambien Defense

September 6, 2011 by North Carolina DWI ( Leave a Comment ( (Edit) (

By Michael Zennie Staff writer

CARTHAGE – Prosecutors must prove Robert Stewart was not under the influence of a sleep medication during the shootings at Pinelake Health & Rehabilitation Center that killed eight people, a Moore County judge ruled Wednesday.

Defense lawyers are employing a rarely used defense strategy called “automatism" to argue that Stewart was not in control of his actions and is not guilty of eight counts of first-degree murder.

They say Stewart was under the influence of Ambien, a prescription sleep medication he had been taking for two years, and was effectively sleepwalking during the March 2009 rampage at the nursing home where his estranged wife worked.

Usually, defense lawyers must prove that a defendant was not in control of his actions.

However, Superior Court Judge James Webb shifted that burden to prosecutors.

The jury must assume that Stewart was not in control of his actions and the evidence must convince them otherwise in order to find him guilty.

Webb made the ruling after defense lawyer Jonathan Megerian said evidence for the automatism defense – the Ambien found in Stewart’s blood after the shootings – came from the prosecution’s case.

Bill Powers, a Charlotte lawyer who tried his first “Ambien defense" case in 2008, said Webb’s decision to inform jurors about automatism and place the burden on prosecutors gives defense lawyers a leg up when jurors begin deliberations.

“This is really, really important for the counsel for the defense and for the defense itself," said Powers, who has no connection to the Stewart case.

In this case, automatism differs from involuntary intoxication, which is not a legal excuse for committing a crime, because witnesses have testified that Stewart took medications he was prescribed by his doctor.

Despite agreeing with defense lawyers on the automatism issue, Webb rejected a defense request to allow the jury the option of finding Stewart guilty of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter instead of the eight counts of first-degree murder with which he is charged.

Defense lawyers also had argued that Stewart was temporarily insane during the shootings and could not understand his actions, so jury instructions will include information about insanity, as well.

The instructions that jurors will receive from the judge before they begin deliberations Friday are lengthy and complex.

For each count of murder, jurors will have the option of finding Stewart guilty of either first-degree murder or second-degree murder.

If jurors believe Stewart committed the murders with deliberation and planning, it will fit the definition of first-degree murder.

If the jurors believes he is guilty of the murders but did not plan them, they must vote for second-degree murder.

If they find him not-guilty, they will have to note whether he is not guilty by reason of insanity or because of another defense argument.

All 12 jurors must agree unanimously to find Stewart guilty.

If Stewart is found guilty of at least one count of first-degree murder, a second phase of the trial will begin in which prosecutors will argue for the death penalty instead of life imprisonment, which is the default sentence for the charge.

Seven elderly patients and a nurse died in the March 29, 2009, shootings. Two other people were injured.

Closing arguments are scheduled for 9:15 a.m. today. The jury is expected to begin its deliberations Friday.

If jurors have not reached a verdict by Friday night, they will continue their work Saturday.

If no verdict has been reached Saturday, deliberations will continue on Monday, Labor Day.

Staff writer Michael Zennie can be reached at [email protected] (mailto:[email protected]) or 910-486-3583.

Additional resources provided by the author

NOTE: There may be other facts and law relevant to the issue. Readers should not base any decision on the information provided herein and are specifically advised no client-lawyer relationship has been established. Put simply, seek the advice of competent counsel without delay to discuss the particular aspects of the case, factual scenario and historical background WHY: The content herein is provided for educational purposes and should not be inferred as applying only to DWI / DUI criminal defense. In fact, it may be equally relevant to claims of personal injury involving accidents and the consumption of alcohol or more simply, to the daily practice of law. Bill Powers lectures on such issues on a regular basis with the intent to educate, to be fair, to be accurate and to encourage, open, honest and scientific discussion on the subject. Bill Powers is managing partner of Powers Landreth, PLLC.

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