in the Court of Appeals 28 November 2018.
by defendant from judgment entered 1 February 2017 by Judge
Nathaniel J. Poovey in Rowan County Rowan County, Nos. 13 CRS
56988-90 Superior Court.
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney
General Mary Carla Babb, for the State.
Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate
Defender Amanda S. Zimmer, for defendant-appellant.
case, we address several issues arising under the felony
murder rule. Jeff David Steen ("Defendant") appeals
from his convictions for first-degree murder, attempted
first-degree murder, and robbery with a dangerous weapon. On
appeal, Defendant argues that the trial court erred by (1)
limiting the scope of his expert witness's testimony
regarding the reliability of the victim's identification
of him as the perpetrator of an assault upon her; (2)
instructing the jury that hands and arms can constitute
deadly weapons in connection with the crime of attempted
murder under the felony murder rule; and (3) referencing a
garden hoe as a deadly weapon possibly used by the
victim's assailant in its jury instructions despite the
absence of evidence that a hoe was actually used in
assaulting the victim. After a thorough review of the record
and applicable law, we conclude that Defendant received a
fair trial free from prejudicial error.
and Procedural Background
2013, J.D. Furr, Defendant's 87 year-old grandfather, and
Sandra Steen ("Sandra"), Defendant's 62
year-old mother, lived on a farm in Rowan County. Defendant
was forty years old and lived twenty minutes away from the
farm in Stanly County.
January 2013, Defendant borrowed $1, 000 from Furr to pay for
repairs to his car and promised to pay the money back within
two weeks. By June 2013, he had paid back approximately $550
and had reached an agreement with Furr to perform work on the
farm as a means of satisfying the remaining portion of the
fall of 2013, Sandra took out a $3, 084.64 loan, in part, to
assist Defendant with making his car payments. Defendant
agreed to make monthly loan payments to Sandra beginning in
October 2013 and promised to pay off the entirety of the loan
by January 2014. He had been borrowing money from his mother
since he was a teenager and owed her a total amount of
between $4, 000 and $6, 000. Sandra testified that
"right before" 5 November 2013 both she and Furr
separately informed Defendant that they would not loan him
any more money. As of 5 November 2013, Defendant's
checking account contained a balance of only $3.64.
evening of 5 November 2013, Defendant was at the farm fixing
a ceiling fan for his grandfather. After completing his work
on the fan, Sandra gave him the bill for that month's
loan payment, and Defendant told her he would "take care
of it." Sandra then went to her car to retrieve some
items that she intended to store in a nearby outbuilding.
While she was doing so, Defendant came out of the house and
told her that he had to go to work. Sandra later testified
that she did not recall either hearing Defendant get into his
vehicle or hearing his car drive away.
retrieving the items intended for storage from her vehicle,
Sandra went inside the outbuilding. After remaining there for
five to ten minutes, she thought she heard raised voices and
believed that Furr might be calling for her. She had begun
walking in the direction of the house when she felt someone
place their right arm around her neck.
trial, Sandra testified that she initially believed that
Defendant had wrapped his arm around her neck as a joke to
"play a trick on [her]." As the assailant began
tightening his grip around her neck, however, she realized
the person was "trying to kill [her]." Her attacker
was wearing a dark-colored ski mask, and Sandra could not see
his face except for his eyes. The assailant then placed his
left hand over her nose and mouth. Sandra testified that at
that point she "started trying to punch or grab whatever
[she] could, and then everything went black."
testified on his own behalf at trial. He stated that on the
night of 5 November 2013, he clocked in at his workplace at
approximately 10:30 p.m. and worked from 11:00 p.m. until
7:00 a.m. Following the conclusion of his shift, he went back
to his home to change clothes and then drove to his
grandfather's farm to work on a fence. Defendant reached
the farm at approximately 8:00 a.m.
arrival, Defendant saw his mother lying near the driveway
close to the storage building. He approached her and saw that
her face was swollen, one of her eyes was shut, and there was
"blood all around" her. Defendant asked her what
had happened, and she responded that she needed help. As he
was speaking to Sandra, he noticed his grandfather
"laying down at the foot of the steps" of the
house. He called 911, and after he explained the
circumstances the dispatcher told him to check on his
found Furr lying by the back door of the farmhouse. There was
a lot of blood "pooled up" by his head area.
Defendant shook Furr and realized that he was dead. Defendant
also picked up his grandfather's wallet and then placed
it back on the ground without removing any of its contents.
At that point, Defendant returned to his mother. It was a
cold morning, and he observed that she was shaking and that
"her whole body was freezing" cold. After
unsuccessfully searching for blankets with which to cover his
mother in order to keep her warm, Defendant lay down next to
Sandra and held her until EMS personnel arrived.
transported Sandra to Stanly Regional Medical Center, and she
was subsequently airlifted from that location to Carolinas
Medical Center ("CMC") in Charlotte. At CMC, she
was diagnosed with a skull fracture, multiple rib fractures,
a collapsed lung, and hypothermia. The treating physician
noted that Sandra had suffered an "assault [by]
determined by autopsy that Furr died from blunt force
injuries to his head and neck. An officer responding to the
911 call testified that Furr's body was within
"eyesight of where [Sandra] was assaulted[.]" A
garden hoe containing Furr's blood on it was found near
his body. The medical examiner testified that the possibility
Furr had been beaten with the garden hoe was "consistent
with most, if not all, of [Furr's] injuries."
Furr's wallet was found near his body with his blood on
it. The money that the wallet normally contained had been
removed. Other than the money taken from Furr's wallet,
nothing else was taken or missing from the farm or its
outbuildings. No unfamiliar vehicles or individuals were seen
by neighbors in the area of the farm on the night of 5
cooperated with law enforcement officers during their
investigation and consistently denied any involvement in the
assault of his mother or the murder of his grandfather.
Officers responding to the scene observed that he had
multiple scratches on both of his arms as well as an injury
to his upper lip. No blood was found in Defendant's
vehicles. His clothing was not examined for the presence of
regard to the scratches on his arm, Defendant told officers
at the crime scene that Sandra had scratched him that morning
while he was holding her as he waited for the arrival of
paramedics. The day after the attacks, he told a cousin that
he thought he could have gotten the scratches at work. During
a subsequent interview with law enforcement officers,
Defendant stated that he might have scratched his arms on a
door frame while fixing Furr's ceiling fan.
North Carolina State Crime Laboratory performed both
fingerprint and DNA testing on the garden hoe. No latent
fingerprints were found on the hoe. The DNA taken from both
the hoe and Furr's wallet matched Furr but did not match
Defendant. Testing performed on scrapings taken from
Sandra's fingernails indicated that the DNA contained
therein matched Sandra and excluded Defendant. In addition, a
hair contained in the fingernail scrapings belonged to
was interviewed by law enforcement officers on multiple
occasions while she was hospitalized. Her first interview
occurred on 6 November 2013 in the emergency room at Stanly
Regional Medical Center. She told the officers that she was
attacked from behind about ten minutes after Defendant had
left the farm by someone wearing a dark-colored ski mask and
dark clothing and that she blacked out after being hit on the
head with "something hard." Sandra further stated
that her attacker was muscular, had dark eyes, and could have
been either white or "Mexican." She also told
officers that the assailant could not have been Defendant
because he was taller than the person who attacked her.
that same day, after being transferred to CMC, Sandra gave
another interview. During her second interview, officers
asked her if she thought that it could have been Defendant
who assaulted her. She responded that it could not have been
him because Defendant was too tall and he was "tore all
to pieces" upon discovering her and Furr's body the
morning after the attacks. Also during this interview, one of
the officers asked Sandra: "What would you think if I
told you that Jeff had a whole lot of scratches on his arm?
Would you think that maybe Jeff done it again like you did at
first?" In response, she reiterated that her attacker
could not have been Defendant and stated that he might have
scratched his arm while working on the ceiling fan earlier
conducted a third interview with Sandra the following day.
She told them that if they were considering Defendant as a
suspect they were "barking down the wrong tree."
She also stated that she thought she remembered hearing
Defendant's car leave the farm on the night of the
attacks and that she might have scratched him the morning
after the attack while he was holding onto her.
gave her final recorded statement to law enforcement officers
on 21 November 2013. Her recollection of the assault on this
occasion was markedly different from the prior occasions on
which she was interviewed. During this interview, she stated
that she saw Defendant's face when her attacker opened
her eye to see whether she was dead or alive. She further
told the officers that she had previously been in denial but
now believed that her son was, in fact, her attacker.
December 2013, Defendant was indicted on charges of
first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and
robbery with a dangerous weapon. His trial began on 9 January
2017 in Rowan County Superior Court before the Honorable
Nathaniel J. Poovey.
trial, Sandra testified that she had seen Defendant's
face during the attack and that a traumatic brain injury
counselor at CMC had assisted her in coming to this
realization. The following exchange occurred on
cross-examination between Sandra and counsel for Defendant
with regard to inconsistencies between her pre-trial
statements to law enforcement officers and her testimony at
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: When the detective asked you about where
you saw the mask or the face, you told him it was one of
these pull over masks . . . didn't you?
[SANDRA]: There was no mask. There was no mask.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: The kind of -- the kind of mask where you
wear when you go rob somebody. Isn't that what you said?
[SANDRA]: There was no mask. I had been dreaming all kind of
crazy dreams laying up there in ICU.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You stayed consistent from the first
statement to this statement the next day that the individual
had a mask. You stayed consist[ent] with [the] fact that he
was larger than you, taller than you and muscular.
[SANDRA]: I was trying my best to figure it out.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Well, why didn't you tell them you
didn't -- you don't know?
[SANDRA]: Because they was wanting something, and I was just
making up stuff. Just -- whatever was in my head, I ...