To the community, Justice Stewart was a helper, leader and accomplished Marine. But to her parents, it’s her infectious laugh and personality that “would light up a room” they’ll always remember her for.
Stewart, 25, died June 27 after she was hit by a truck while out for a run in Pender County. Now, those who loved her want to bring her justice and keep her legacy alive.
“There are so many words I can use to describe Justice, but she embodies so, so much more,” Stewart’s mother Tia Jones said.
Stewart was in her fourth year in the Marine Corps and was a first lieutenant, one of only a handful of Black women in the Marines who earned the title. She was on her way to becoming a captain.
Jones said growing up, Stewart always wanted to be a lawyer. In high school, she joined JROTC so she wouldn’t have to take PE, and fell in love with the camaraderie and leadership opportunities it brought. When she was a sophomore in high school, she told her mom she wanted to go into the Marine Corps.
Stewart graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and joined the Marines, and began quickly moving up in the ranks. Her goal was to become a Judge Advocate Division (JAD) officer. She was stationed at Camp Lejeune and living near the base when she died.
But Jones said Stewart had many passions outside of the Marines. She described Stewart as a “prolific writer” who had goals of eventually earning an English degree. She published a poetry book in 2019 and had a second book near finished when she died.
“She was healthy, she was vibrant. She was living her best life doing all that she had hoped to do,” Jones said.
Stewart was hit by a truck while on a run along N.C. 50 in Pender County, just south of the Onslow County border. The man driving, William Keith Genens, a 58-year-old Holly Ridge man, had just left a bar a few minutes before. Neighbors who heard the crash ran outside and told Genens he should call 911, but he refused and instead called his adult children, the StarNews reported. It is believed Stewart died on impact.
Genens was sentenced in September to approximately four months in jail — two months immediately, and then again for a month in December 2021 and December 2022, the month of Stewart’s birthday. He also received a suspended sentence of one-two years, and 12 years of probation.
Tia Jones and Stewart’s stepfather, Woodrow Jones, said that doesn’t feel like enough.
“I just can’t fathom that,” Tia Jones said. “When you think about what people get for robbing a store or committing a burglary, they get years. But involuntary manslaughter, someone takes a life, they just get a couple months. There’s something wrong with that.”
Tia Jones said the trial and sentencing was like reliving the moment she found out her daughter had died. Woodrow Jones said throughout the trial, the hardest thing to grasp was the lack of empathy and remorse he thought Genens showed.
Woodrow Jones said he remembers when the judge asked Genens if he knew why he was there, Genens responded that he “plowed her over” with his truck.
“If I was sitting in his seat, his family was sitting where our family was, would they be as reserved? Would they be as conservative? Would they be as nonchalant? Would they be as calm about some things as they wanted us to be?” Woodrow Jones said. “I don’t believe they would have.”
Woodrow Jones said now, justice for Stewart means working to look at laws and where there are holes that allowed Genens to be sentenced to just four months in jail. The family plans to continue finding ways to honor Stewart through investing in ROTC programs, organizing a memorial 5k run, getting more of her writing published, and more.
“She did not live a selfish life and we’re not going to leave a selfish legacy because we love her so much,” Woodrow Jones said. “We want others to share that kind of love.”
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