Raleigh, N.C. — A Raleigh man on trial for sexually abusing and killing his 10-month-old stepdaughter is only the third person in Wake County to face a possible death sentence since 2007, when executions were effectively put on hold in North Carolina.
Jury selection began Monday in the capital murder trial of Joshua Andrew Stepp, 28, who is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sex offense of a child in the Nov. 8, 2009, death of Cheyenne Emery Yarley.
Stepp told a 911 dispatcher that the girl choked on toilet paper, but an autopsy found that she had been beaten to death.
It's expected to take two weeks for a jury to be seated, and attorneys said they expect testimony to last approximately three weeks.
A de facto moratorium on the death penalty has been in place since 2007 because of legal challenges to how executions are carried out in North Carolina, where 158 people are on death row.
As a result, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says, prosecutors across the state are now less inclined to seek the death penalty partially because jurors seem less inclined to vote for it and because the cases are more expensive to try.
"We all have a shortage of resources, and we recognized that we have to be very careful in selecting the cases that we try that way," he said.
Of the 36 homicide cases on the court docket in Wake County, Willoughby said, five are currently designated as capital cases.
Willoughby says his office seeks the death penalty only in the most egregious cases in which there is a significant chance that a jury will enter a death verdict.
Since 2006, that's been two cases.
Byron Lamar Waring was sentenced to death in July 2007 for the November 2005 stabbing death of Lauren Redman inside her Raleigh apartment.
Last year, Wake prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty against Samuel James Cooper, who was convicted of killing five men in a series of shootings across Wake County.
"Many (jurors) believe that life imprisonment is appropriate for most serious murders," Willoughby said. "Only in a few cases is the death penalty an appropriate sentence."
Ty Hunter, executive director for the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says that, statistics show that people like having the death penalty "in theory" but not "in practice and that juries have become "less than enthusiastic" about giving it.
On average, there are 10 death penalty trials across the state every year and that only two or three result in a death sentence.
That's down significantly from the 1990s, he says, when prosecutors tried an average of 50 death penalty cases annually, with approximately half resulting in death sentences.
Since 2006, 15 people across the state have been sentenced to death, including one this year.
Prior to that, 243 people were sentenced to death since the death penalty was reinstated in North Carolina in 1984. Forty-three people have been executed since then.
The last execution, in August 2006, was Samuel Flippen, a Forsyth County man convicted of first-degree murder in the 1994 beating death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter.
"People are just a lot less enthusiastic about the death penalty," Hunter said. "I think North Carolinians are content with the situation we have now. We have a death penalty, but we're not executing anybody."