Stewart begins serving homicide sentence after Supreme Court declines appeal

Jeff Bobo • Mar 17, 2017 at 7:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Having exhausted all of his appeal options, Hawkins County businessman Roger Stewart turned himself in at the Hawkins County Jail Thursday afternoon to begin serving his sentence nearly two and a half years after his conviction for criminally negligent homicide.

On Oct. 8, 2014, a Hawkins County jury found Stewart guilty of the charge by causing the death of Thelma Hughes in a head-on collision that occurred in 2012 on Hughes’ 84th birthday.

He was also found guilty on two counts of felony reckless endangerment related to the other two occupants of the vehicle with Hughes.

The following December, Judge John Dugger gave Stewart the maximum sentence of two years, of which Stewart must serve 30 percent before he is his eligible for parole.

Last October, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld Stewart’s conviction, and although he was subsequently booked into jail, he was quickly released on bond again while his appeal application was considered by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Stewart’s attorney, William Phillips, confirmed for the Times-News Friday that the state’s high court declined the petition to consider Stewart’s appeal.

“He has has exhausted his state options, and that will be the end of his appellate review,” Phillips said. “The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals opinion, and that affirms the verdict of the jury and the sentence of the trial judge.”

Stewart, 64, 5279 Highway 11-W, Rogersville, was involved in the June 11, 2012, head-on collision on Highway 11-W just east of Rogersville in which Hughes was critically injured. She succumbed to those injuries on July 23, 2012, after spending six weeks in pain.

On the day of the crash, James Hughes was driving his mother and an 11-year-old passenger eastbound on Highway 11-W. That day happened to be Mrs. Hughes’ 84th birthday, and they were returning from a celebratory lunch.

Two police officers testified during the trial that Stewart was driving west on Highway 11-W when he turned left at the Corbin Heights Drive intersection and began traveling in the wrong direction in the eastbound lane.

Police said Stewart was taking a shortcut to get into the parking lot of R&R Auto Sales, which he co-owns with his brother.

Hawkins County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Scott Alley, who was the first officer on the scene after the collision, testified that Stewart told him he’d done that “a thousand times before.”

Stewart’s appeal attacked, among other things, the sufficiency of the evidence and sentencing.

In upholding the conviction and sentence last year, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge John Everett Williams stated the evidence was sufficient for a rational jury to find that Stewart should have been aware of the substantial and unjustifiable risk of ignoring a “Do Not Enter” sign and driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic.

“The evidence was further sufficient for the jury to find that Mrs. Hughes’s death was a natural and probable result of the defendant’s negligence,” Williams states. “The evidence was also sufficient to show that the defendant acted recklessly. Sergeant Alley testified that the defendant told him that he had utilized the shortcut to R&R Auto Sales ‘a thousand times before,’ indicating that he was aware of the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign.”

Williams also upheld Dugger’s decision to impose incarceration and deny alternative sentencing.

“The trial court found that it would send ‘a terrible message’ to grant the defendant complete probation,” Williams stated. “The court noted that the cause of the wreck was the defendant’s desire to take a shortcut that brought him into oncoming traffic, and that others needed to be deterred from such behavior. The testimony at trial and the sentencing hearing showed that Mrs. Hughes suffered immense physical pain before she passed away and that her age made her injuries far more likely to be fatal.”

Williams added, “Additionally, the court found that the defendant might continue to commit traffic offenses, as the defendant admitted that after the wreck, he was involved in two separate automobile accidents and received a speeding ticket. We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant an alternative sentence.”                                            

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