A judge on Tuesday declared a mistrial in the case of a man accused of raping a Winthrop University student in 2011.
Merrilled Christopher Stewart, 27, of Charlotte, will stand trial during a later term of court. He was arrested last July and remains in the York County Detention Center on charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, possession of a weapon during a violent crime and indecent exposure.
Circuit Court Judge Dan Hall granted a defense motion for a mistrial after a break Tuesday afternoon.
Before the break, Stewart, who was wearing street clothes, was shown a door to the holding cell by a deputy, Hall said before announcing his decision.
“The defendant had risen and appeared to be under the custody and control of uniformed courtroom security,” Hall said. He added that this was before the jury had left the courtroom, and that Stewart was escorted back to his seat.
This action and “other factors that may have led to the issue of an appearance that the jury could have perceived” that Stewart was in the custody of law enforcement and could have influenced or prejudiced the jury in considering Stewart’s guilt, Hall said.
“We do everything we can to protect a defendant’s due process rights, the right to a fair and impartial trial,” he said, adding that he does not believe there was any intent by the state or courtroom security to cause a mistrial.
Hall said he and the attorneys discussed in chambers the possibility of instructing the jurors not to presume anything based on what they saw, but determined that could further jeopardize Stewart’s due process.
Stewart is accused of kidnapping a 20-year-old Winthrop student from her apartment building on Dec. 14, 2011, around 2 a.m. The apartments are located next to Winthrop’s campus but are privately owned.
The victim told police an unknown man put a kitchen knife to her side and forced her into her car. She said the suspect then made her drive to another apartment complex nearby and ordered her to get undressed.
Police say the attacker raped the woman for nearly 20 minutes and ran away.
After the woman reported the incident to Safe Passage, a service for victims of sexual assault, officials released a police sketch of the unknown assailant but did not identify possible suspects.
Local police agencies reopened the rape case after a student was sexually assaulted outside a campus building on Nov. 1, 2014, within minutes of which Winthrop police made an arrest. Later, police officials said there were some similarities in the two cases but did not give details about the ongoing investigation.