A Rohnert Park man charged in the hit-and-run death of a retired Sonoma State University professor was released from jail Christmas Eve after an appeals court stayed an order to send him to Napa State Hospital.

Robert E. Cowart, 70, is accused of running his pickup into retired environmental studies professor Steve Norwick, who was riding his bicycle on Petaluma Hill Road. Cowart reportedly told police he didn't stop because he didn't think the rider was injured.

Norwick, 68, died 11 days later.

Cowart faces prison time if convicted of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash but criminal proceedings have been suspended because he's been deemed mentally incompetent.

According to court papers, Cowart is being treated for vascular dementia. His lawyers initially told a judge Cowart suffered a stroke and had an aneurysm that might have impeded blood to his brain.

He has appeared disoriented at his numerous hearings, which he attends using a wheelchair.

Judge Gary Medvigy last week ordered him to be sent to Napa State for treatment. Cowart, who was free on $50,000 bail, was placed in custody until he could be transported to the mental hospital.

But his lawyers appealed Medvigy's orders on grounds that the state hospital will be unable to restore Cowart's competence. Attorney George Boisseau said in legal papers that outpatient treatment Cowart is receiving from the Primrose Adult Daycare Program and the Veteran's Administration would be more helpful.

The 1st District Court of Appeal granted a stay until it could decide the best care for Cowart. A decision could come sometime next year. Medvigy released him from jail Tuesday after a hearing in which he admonished the elderly man him not to drive.

Cowart, who was in the process of a retiring himself from a family well-digging business, is charged with hitting Norwick June 8, 2012, as the just-retired professor was on a weekly bike ride to breakfast in Penngrove.

He was arrested after two neighbors saw him return home in a damaged pickup that matched the description of a hit-and-run vehicle.

Investigators said Cowart matter-of-factly recounted hitting Norwick. Afterward, they said he stopped at a market two miles down the road to buy milk before going home.

Cowart was one of several drivers charged with killing or seriously injuring Sonoma County cyclists last year.

Among them was Harry Smith, 82, of Santa Rosa, who rammed a cyclist after chasing him onto the Oakmont golf course in a case of road rage. In July, Smith was sentenced to five years in a secure facility that specializes in treating dementia.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com