The North Carolina Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Joshua Stepp, the 30 year old convicted of first degree murder and first degree sexual offense in the 2009 beating death of his step-daughter Cheyenne Yarley.
It’s the second major Wake County murder conviction overturned by the Court of Appeals in the past 9 months. The Court of Appeals earlier overturned the conviction of Brad Cooper in the death of his wife Nancy. The State has appealed that ruling to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeals’ 2-1 decision in State v. Stepp is automatically sent to the Supreme Court for review. The defense had not denied that Stepp killed Cheyenne, but had argued that Stepp, an Iraq War veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been drinking heavily the day of his step-daughter’s death.
The State argued that the jury should find the defendant guilty of first degree murder for at least one of two reasons: that Stepp had behaved with premeditation and deliberation. Alternatively, the State argued that the Defendant was guilty of first degree murder based on the felony murder rule, as the evidence, according to the State, showed that the Defendant had either raped, or attempted to rape his step-daughter.
The felony murder rule says that someone can be convicted of first-degree if the person, during an otherwise dangerous or violent felony, causes the death of the victim.
Stepp admitted that he was responsible for Cheyenne’s death, but said that he had suffered from mental illnesses that precluded him from acting with premeditation, and denied that he had sexually assaulted his step-daughter.
The Jury found the Defendant guilty of first degree murder based on the felony murder rule, and based on the jury’s verdict that the Defendant had committed a sexual act upon his step-daughter.
The Court of Appeals held that the Defendant’s request for a instruction to the jury on the underlying sex offense had been improperly denied by the trial judge.
Stepp had testified that he penetrated the victim with his finger wrapped in a wipe to clean her while he changed her diapers and that this purpose is an “accepted medical purpose.” His lawyers had requested that the judge instruct on the affirmative defense of “accepted medical purpose” as provided in N.C.G.S. Sec. 14-27.1(4).
The failure to properly instruct the jury created reversible error. The case now goes to the North Carolina Supreme Court for review.