RALEIGH (AP) — A man who admitted abusing and killing his 10-month-old stepdaughter in a drunken rage should have a new trial on his first-degree murder conviction, North Carolina’s Appeals Court ruled Tuesday.
The court said in a 2-1 opinion that Joshua Stepp should have a new trial in the killing of Cheyenne Yarley on Nov. 8, 2009. However, the split decision means prosecutors can appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
According to the court, evidence showed Cheyenne Yarley suffered second-degree rug burns; was shaken so violently that her brain and retinas were bleeding; and gagged on wet toilet paper put in her mouth to silence her screams. There also was evidence that the girl may have been sexually abused. But Stepp said the girl’s injuries were caused when he aggressively cleaned her during a diaper change, not by sexual abuse.
During trial in 2011, the judge refused to allow the defense to tell the jury Stepp’s cleaning of the child was an “accepted medical practice” under state law. The jury’s finding that Stepp sexually abused the child was key to convicting him of first-degree murder instead of second-degree murder. Stepp is currently serving a life sentence without parole.
However, appeals Judge Chris Dillon wrote that jurors should have been told that Stepp’s cleaning of the child was accepted medical practice. That state law is intended to protect parents and caretakers from being charged with a felony if a child is hurt during an activity like a diaper change.
Judge Linda Stephens agreed with Dillon’s reasoning, but in a separate opinion she urged lawmakers to consider changing the law’s wording “because I believe the result we are compelled to reach in this appeal is not what our General Assembly envisioned or intended.”
“I cannot believe that our legislators intended this affirmative defense be used as a shield by a drunken, drugged and enraged defendant,” Stephens wrote.
Judge Wanda Bryant dissented, writing that she couldn’t make the leap that Stepp’s actions were for an accepted medical purpose and not sexual in nature.
Staples Hughes, the state appellate defender, said the court made the right decision in a difficult case.
“This case involved about as tragic and painful a set of circumstances as can be imagined,” said Hughes, whose office represented Stepp. “In the face of the emotionally charged facts, the Court of Appeals showed real courage, vindicating the rule of law by applying reason and the force of precedent to grant a new trial.”
According to the opinion, the night Cheyenne was killed, she had been left in Stepp’s care by her mother, who was working a night shift at Fort Bragg. He had been drinking liquor and beer that day, in addition to taking the painkiller hydrocodone.
At his trial, defense attorneys said Stepp abused alcohol and prescription drugs to deal with having to pick up body parts of fellow soldiers after they were killed in Iraq. They said the former soldier suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which affected his impulse control and decision making.
Stepp’s wife noticed he was lethargic and stumbling when he came home at 7:25 p.m. but left the crying infant with him anyway. When the child wouldn’t stop crying, Stepp left her on the floor of a closet, then later grabbed the back of her head and rubbed her face into the carpet to stop her crying.
Later, Stepp stuck wet toilet paper in Cheyenne’s mouth, causing her to gag. When he couldn’t get the paper out with his fingers, Stepp shook the girl and hit her on her back. By then, the child was barely breathing. At 8:50 p.m., Stepp called 911. She was declared dead 15 minutes after she arrived at Wake Medical Center.