Originally created 09/15/96

Murder trial begins Monday



For the next two weeks, the community will relive the nightmare of Mary Colley Stewart's death as the man accused of killing her faces capital murder charges.

Robert Eugene Fielding, 45, has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and robbery. But before anyone gets to hear any proof in Richmond County Superior Court, jurors and alternate must be selected.

That process begins Monday morning. Whether 12 people who haven't formed an opinion as to Mr. Fielding's guilt or innocence can be found is debatable, those in the legal community say, but most lean toward "yes."

"I think they will be able to get a jury here, whether they should pick a jury here is another question," veteran defense attorney David Weber said.

Mr. Fielding's defense team has filed repeated motions seeking to move the trial out of Augusta, but Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet has resisted a change of venue unless the individual questioning of potential jurors proves an impartial jury cannot be found.

"This has probably been the highest profile case here since I've been practicing law, (20 years) maybe ever," Mr. Weber said.

The last and possibly only time a trial has been moved to another area was when MacArthur Lawton Jr. was tried in Savannah six years ago for killing two store employees.

Voluminous newspaper articles, local TV news videos and testimony from a radio talk show host underscore the community interest in Mr. Fielding's case.

The story began the night of May 12, 1994.

Mrs. Stewart left her husband a note saying she was working late at the Department of Family and Children Services on Fenwick Street. He found the note after returning from a ballgame around 8 p.m. She shouldn't have been that late.

By 11 p.m., he called police and they searched the Fenwick Street office building. Mrs. Stewart's car was still parked in the lot, but she wasn't found.

The next morning, Mr. Stewart called his childhood friend who grew up next door - District Attorney Danny Craig. That afternoon, the sanitation department made its routine pickup of the Dumpster behind the DFCS building and took the contents to the county landfill around 1 p.m.

Later that afternoon on May 13, 1994, Mr. Fielding called in sick to his job. He was the supervisor of a janitorial crew that cleaned the DFCS office.

It wasn't until the next morning, May 14, that police again searched the DFCS building. This time, investigators found what looked like blood in Mrs. Stewart's office, more on a trash cart, and drops near the door of the trash bin out back. They went to the landfill and by 5 p.m. made a gruesome discovery: Mrs. Stewart's body had been mangled by heavy machinery.

For three weeks, investigators took bags of body parts to the medical examiner. Police were criticized for not finding Mrs. Stewart's body the first day. Now, medical examiners couldn't determine the cause of death.

Mrs. Stewart's family have declined to comment.

Those who knew Mrs. Stewart, as well as those who didn't, listened and read in horror. About a thousand people attended Mrs. Stewart's memorial service at the end of the week.

Those feelings turned to outrage on May 16, 1994, when it was announced a paroled killer, Mr. Fielding, had been indicted.

Those probably most outraged were Willard "Toby" Hayes' family. He was robbed and shot to death May 17, 1969, by Mr. Fielding. They didn't know Mr. Fielding had been paroled from a life sentence until they read about his arrest in Mrs. Stewart's death, said sister Tonya Graves.

The fallout reached Atlanta, where legislators rushed to pass laws and politicians running for office ranted about Mr. Fielding's new arrest and pledged to "be tougher on criminals."

Although local residents may remember the case, that won't automatically exclude them from the jury, said Ron Carlson, professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.

"The key test is if a prospective juror has been prejudiced, if he can't put (media reports about the case) out of his mind and sit as an impartial juror," Mr. Carlson said.

In the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit, comparable with the Augusta Circuit in population, District Attorney Danny Porter said he has been amazed about how little most people retain about high-profile criminal cases.

Last year he tried a police officer facing capital murder charges. "We got massive amounts of publicity. Yet when we called 230 jurors in ... we had maybe seven who were excused because they had read about it in the paper and formed opinions (of guilt or innocence,)" Mr. Porter said.

The size of the prospective juror base is the deciding factor, Mr. Porter said. In areas with several hundred thousand residents, it's not a problem, but in smaller circuits, where most residents know one another, it can be impossible, the state Supreme Court ruled.

District Attorney Dennis Sanders was furious about the Supreme Court ruling that reversed a murder conviction and death sentence in Lincoln County four years ago. The judge bent over backward and excused anyone who knew any details of the case - in which there were five witnesses to the killing, confessions, and the defendant's fingerprints - but the court reversed because of pretrial publicity, Mr. Sanders said.

"The courts are not giving our public enough credit," he said. People know and understand the difference between evidence and media reports, Mr. Sanders said. The O.J. Simpson trial, which ended in an acquittal, and in which there was no change of venue, proves that, he said.

"You never can tell unless you question the juror pool," Mr. Porter said. If it turns out that 25 percent to 30 percent of the juror pool is excused because of fixed opinions, then a change of venue is in order, he said.

In February 1990, Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. moved Mr. Lawton's death penalty trial to Savannah after 22 of 54 potential jurors questioned said they thought Mr. Lawton was guilty of killing Allison Dawn Holley, 23, and Lee Shields, 19, on Oct. 26, 1988. Judge Fleming said it was the only such change of venue he could remember in 21 years on the bench.

The juror selection process this week will be monotonous to those watching as prospective jurors are brought in one at a time and questioned by attorneys. Judge Overstreet intends to work long days, which means a jury might be seated before the end of the week.

If and when that's accomplished, the actual trial testimony and evidence will unfold.

It won't answer all the questions Mrs. Stewart's family and community have, warned Carolyn Bunch, who's 16-year-old daughter, Aleta Bunch, was murdered March 4, 1986, by Alexander E. Williams, who is still on death row.

Mrs. Bunch would like to know what Aleta bought the day she was abducted from the Regency Mall. "She was shopping for my birthday present that day. I don't even know what it was."

The trial was horrible, she said, and it didn't end things because appeals are still pending. "We can't go on with our lives until something's settled."