Almost five years after a Winthrop University student was kidnapped, raped, and told by her attacker, “That’s why I gave you AIDS,” the convicted sex offender was sent to prison for eight years on Tuesday.
Merilled Christopher Stewart – who faced as many as 70 years in prison if convicted at trial – told a judge that he was only pleading guilty so he could see his mother and father again.
Stewart, 27, who lives in Charlotte but is from Chester, is a sex offender with past convictions for taking indecent liberties with a minor and escape from prison. He wept in court and pointed skyward after pleading guilty.
“I’m doing this for my family,” Stewart claimed. “God bless the victim, because he (God) knows.”
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The victim, a 20-year-old Winthrop junior when she was assaulted near campus in 2011, sat silently with her parents in court, then left quickly without having to testify about the worst night of her life.
Prosecutors offered the deal because the victim told them she was too terrified to testify. She sent a letter to the judge asking if she could avoid testifying after a mistrial in the case last month.
In March, bailiffs mistakenly placed Stewart in custody in the presence of the jury – which is potentially prejudicial against the suspect – so the trial was halted and rescheduled.
Since that mistrial, the victim begged prosecutors and the judge to free her from having to testify about the agony of the night she was abducted close to the Winthrop campus in 2011, when Stewart held her at knifepoint, then took her to another parking lot and raped her.
The assault lasted at least 20 minutes, police have said, and the victim at first did not fight back because she feared for her life. Then, after she realized she was bigger than the 5-foot-6 inch Stewart, she fought back.
That’s when her attacker blurted out: “That’s why I gave you AIDS,” and even threw in an expletive to try and make the victim feel worse. No evidence was presented that the victim was affected by any disease, but the heinous words rang out in court illustrating the rage of the attack.
The Herald does not identify victims of criminal sexual attack.
Erin Joyner, the 16th Circuit assistant solicitor who is a specialist in cases involving sex crimes, said in court that she was prepared to take the case again to trial, but she offered Stewart the plea deal so the victim wouldn’t have to testify.
“This reopened old wounds for her,” Joyner said.
The victim told police in 2011 that she did not know her attacker after she sought help from Safe Passage, a center for victims of abuse. Police released a sketch of the attacker, but no arrests were made.
The case “went cold” for almost four years, prosecutors said.
Then, after a Winthrop student was raped and attacked on campus in an unrelated October 2014 incident, Rock Hill police reopened the 2011 cold case. The sex assault kit sent for testing came back as a match for Stewart’s DNA. Because of his North Carolina conviction and sex offender status, Stewart’s DNA was in a federal felon database.
Stewart was arrested in July 2015 and has been in jail since, despite claiming that the sex was consensual. His trial defense was planned to be just that – consensual sex – until he took the plea deal just minutes before the trial was scheduled to start.