NC Appeals Court orders new murder trial for Raleigh stepdad
Posted January 21, 2014 1:21 p.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2014 12:30 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that a Raleigh man convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his 10-month-old stepdaughter should get a new trial.
Joshua Andrew Stepp, 30, was sentenced on Sept. 13, 2011, to life in prison after he was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual offense in the November 2009 beating death of Cheyenne Yarley, who had been left in his care while her mother was at work.
Stepp, who is serving a life sentence at Central Prison in Raleigh, was found guilty under what's called the felony murder rule, meaning the jury found that the child's death happened in conjunction with another felony crime, which prosecutors contended was the sexual offense.
But Stepp's defense attorneys argued that injuries to the girl's anal and vaginal areas were the result of Stepp being rough with her as he changed her diaper and cleaned her several times the night of her death.
In a 2-1 ruling, the three-judge appellate panel found Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith improperly instructed jurors regarding the defense's claim to the sexual offense charge.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Tuesday that he was disappointed by the opinion and said that because it was a split ruling, the case is automatically appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Prosecutors, who unsuccessfully sought the death penalty, said Stepp attempted to rape Cheyenne, beat her to death and then lied to her mother, emergency responders and police about what happened.
Testifying on his own behalf, Stepp admitted to killing Cheyenne, although he said he didn't know why he did it, but denied the sexual offense charge.
An Iraq War veteran, Stepp suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependency and had been drinking heavily the day of Cheyenne's death.
The defense, which had sought a second-degree murder conviction, argued that affected his impulse control and decision-making and that, on the night of Cheyenne’s death, he had trouble coping with the child's constant crying.