A Pasco grandmother shot dead in her home in 2011 had alcohol, cannabis and several prescription drugs in her system that likely led to irrational behavior and an attempted attack on her daughter with a hatchet, a defense lawyer said Wednesday.
Judy Hebert was shot and killed by her daughter, Tashia L. Stuart, attorney Bob Thompson told jurors in opening statements.
What happened is horrendous, Thompson said, but there is something that prosecutors either chose to ignore or have forgotten in mapping out their case against Stuart.
“This case is truly something that could be unexpected,” Thompson said during his 20-minute opening. “The evidence in this case is going to show there was a serotonin storm brewing in this household for some time. Judy Hebert had overmedicated herself in ways that nobody could contemplate.”
Stuart, 40, is on trial in Franklin County Superior Court for the March 3, 2011, death of her mother.
The trial started May 28, with the first evidence presented to the jury Wednesday.
Stuart is charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder for allegedly trying to kill the 58-year-old woman weeks before her actual death by plotting to drop a heavy bin of books onto her head.
Stuart is claiming she acted in self-defense when Hebert came at her with an ax.
When detectives told Stuart later that day that her mother had died, “my client was so emotionally distraught that she throws up,” Thompson said. Those are not the actions of a person who had pre-planned a murder, he added.
Stuart, her 7-year-old daughter and her husband moved in with Hebert in early 2011.
On Feb. 20, 2011, Hebert was reportedly helping her son-in-law in the garage with a tape measure when a heavy bin of books fell on her head.
Prosecutor Shawn Sant said it was like what people might see in a cartoon, Hebert being asked to move repeatedly until she was in the precise spot for the drop in the attempted murder plot. Hebert was injured but didn’t seek medical treatment for several days.
Around the same time, Stuart called her father in Coeur d’Alene, asking for access to her mother’s safe so she could get Hebert’s power of attorney and “do not resuscitate” documents, Sant said. She also reportedly called her young daughter’s father, said she needed to change her mother’s will and asked him to witness the signing of it. He declined, even when she offered to pay him.
Stuart had told him “that Judy will be dead in a few days, so she’s already making plans to get whatever she thinks is going to be her property,” Sant told the jury.Meanwhile, Hebert told friends and neighbors that she was concerned for her safety.
Then at 2:24 p.m. March 3, 2011, a Franklin County dispatcher answered a 911 call from the Salmon Drive home. A woman, possibly Hebert, said two short, inaudible sentences before the call was disconnected.
Patti Loney immediately called back and an anxious-sounding Stuart answered, telling the dispatcher the only thing wrong was that the smoke alarm was going off in her home. The two calls were played for jurors Wednesday.
Stuart is heard on the return call saying she was changing the battery and just needed to push the button to reset it. Once she assured Loney that all was OK, Stuart said “Thank you” and hung up.
However, Loney said it is dispatch protocol on 911 hang-up calls to send an officer to the home and make sure everything is all right.
Krystal Knudson, who was the law dispatcher on duty that afternoon, said she asked Pasco Officers Dean Perry and Kevin Erickson to respond. Perry was on a traffic stop, so Erickson offered to go without backup.
Erickson arrived 10 minutes after the initial call, telling the jury Wednesday that he drove there at a normal speed without lights and siren because there was no known threat.
Erickson testified that he listened at the door for a short time and heard nothing, so he knocked. An upset or nervous Stuart opened the door, “said there was a domestic going on involving something burning on the stove, someone was sick in a back room and everybody was all upset,” Erickson said.
The officer, who couldn’t smell smoke, told Stuart he needed to talk to her about what was going on. She responded that she needed to put the dogs away and shut the door.
Erickson waited on the front porch and thought it unusual that Stuart wasn’t coming back out. Then a neighbor across the street motioned to Erickson and shared that he thought he had heard a gunshot come from Hebert’s house earlier.
The officer told Perry he needed to get there immediately, then unsnapped the holster on his gun and approached the front door. He was 10 feet away when the door flung wide open, and he said Stuart told him, “She came at me with an ax.”
Erickson asked a series of questions, and Stuart told him she had fired at somebody and actually hit the person, who now was on the ground down the hallway.
Stuart was “somewhat distraught” and “almost hysterical” with more hand movements, but wasn’t crying, he said. Perry had arrived by that time and watched Stuart and her daughter in the living room while Erickson went down the hall and confirmed at 2:48 p.m. that Hebert was dead.
Hebert had a chop wound to the back of the head, but died from a gunshot wound to the chest, Sant told jurors.
Erickson was asked about the hatchet he found near Hebert’s body. He described it as a $10 survival/utility hatchet that “really doesn’t do anything very well” and may be good to “leave in your car when nothing else is better.”
Sant said even though Stuart claims she only grabbed the revolver from her mother’s open safe after Hebert came at her with an ax, Stuart had planned to kill her mother long before March 3.
He questioned why Stuart denied anything was wrong when she spoke to the dispatcher, when neighbors called her before police arrived and when Erickson showed up at the house.
Stuart had multiple opportunities to say what had happened inside the house with her mother allegedly attacking her, “but she lied, lied, lied,” Sant said. He added that there was no evidence of a struggle in the home and that Stuart had no marks or signs of an assault on her.
The defense put the blame on Hebert, saying the medications she’d been on since before the book-bin incident along with newer prescriptions “created a situation where Ms. Hebert was rendered unable to understand the events that were going on around her,” Thompson said. “She became confused, didn’t know what was going on and had concerns that her own daughter was changing her medications.”
Hebert was still in her housecoat when she was shot about 2:20 p.m. An autopsy revealed that she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.09 percent at the time, along with cannabis and six powerful medications in her system, including Valium, an opiate and an anti-depressant, Thompson said.
“It’s a situation frankly where the behavior of Judy Hebert is explained by her drug use,” he said. The concerns she shared with her neighbors and her altered perception of reality were directly related to her overdosing on medications.
“Look at the dynamics of this household and, more important, what was going on inside the head of this person (Hebert), what led to this,” he said. “My client isn’t guilty. It’s a tragedy, but she’s not accountable for what has happened.”