Crime

NC Supreme Court upholds Joshua Stepp's murder conviction

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.
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 - tiwabu@newsobserver.com

Joshua Stepp, a former Army infantryman from Wake County who was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his infant stepdaughter, will not get a new trial after all.

The N.C. Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday reversing an N.C. Court of Appeals decision that vacated the conviction in January 2014. The three-judge appeals court decision was split 2-1 in favor of the new trial.

At issue were instructions on the sexual assault accusations provided to the jury before it began deliberations. Defense attorneys argued the judge did not provide enough information to jurors about whether there were any medical reasons for the sexual assault injuries, and two of the appeals court judges agreed.

“Defendant inflicted numerous and severe injuries on his 10-month-old stepdaughter,” Judge Chris Dillon wrote in the appellate ruling released last year. “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 the trial in September 2011, one of the jurors said 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 on Nov. 8, 2009, but could not explain why he did what he did.

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.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty in Stepp’s case, but the jury was deadlocked over it. Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith, who presided over the trial, ordered Stepp to serve life in prison without possibility for parole.

Appeals court Judge Linda Stephens agreed with Dillon about sending the case back to Wake County 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.

The Supreme Court offered little detail about its decision, other than to say “for the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion” the appeals court was reversed.

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