NC Appeals Court orders new trial in 2009 infant death

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

STEPPTRIAL1.082211.TI

Joshua Stepp, 28, looks toward his parents after the first day of his murder trial on Monday, August 22, 2011. Stepp is accused of sexually assaulting and killing his 10-month-old stepdaughter.

TAKAAKI IWABU — TAKAAKI IWABU - tiwabu@newsobserver.com

— The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Joshua Stepp, a former Army infantryman convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his infant stepdaughter, should get a new trial.

The three-judge panel was split 2-1 on the decision to reverse the September 2011 verdict.

At issue were instructions on the sexual assault accusations provided to the jury before it began deliberations.

“Defendant inflicted numerous and severe injuries on his 10-month-old stepdaughter,” Judge Chris Dillon wrote in the appellate ruling released Tuesday. “There was substantial evidence presented at trial from which the jury could have convicted Defendant of first-degree murder based on a number of theories.”

However, Dillon stated in the opinion, the jury based its verdict on its decision that a sexual assault had occurred.

After arriving at the verdict in September 2011, one of the jurors said at the conclusion of the trial that though he and his fellow jurors could not agree that a rape occurred, they thought there was evidence to support the accusation of sexual offense against a child.

Stepp, an Iraq War veteran who claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, took the stand in his defense during his trial. He acknowledged killing Cheyenne Yarley, his stepdaughter, when she was 10 months old, but could not explain why he did what he did on Nov. 8, 2009.

Stepp, who told jurors he was under the influence of alcohol and prescription painkillers that night, denied sexual assault allegations. He argued that he was cleaning the child during a diaper change when the injuries related to the sexual assault accusations occurred.

He acknowledged repeatedly rubbing his stepdaughter’s face into the carpet, causing fatal head and brain injuries.

Though prosecutors sought the death penalty in Stepp’s case, the jury was deadlocked on whether to impose capital punishment. Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith, who presided over the trial, ordered Stepp to serve life in prison without possibility for parole.

Judge Linda Stephens ultimately agreed with Dillon about remanding the case back to Wake County Superior Court for a new trial but offered her own opinion for how she arrived at that decision.

“I cannot believe that our legislators intended this affirmative defense be used as a shield by a drunken, drugged, and enraged Defendant,” Stephens wrote, hoping to draw the General Assembly’s attention to wording changes she thinks are necessary for the law the defense team used to appeal the case.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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