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State v. Steen

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 19, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 28 November 2018.

          Appeal 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.

          DAVIS, JUDGE.

         In this 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.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In 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.

         In 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 debt.

         In 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.

         On the 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.

         Upon 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.

         At 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."

         Defendant 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.

         Upon 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 grandfather.

         Defendant 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.

         Paramedics 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] unspecified means."

         It was 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 November 2013.

         Defendant 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 blood.

         With 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.

         The 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 Sandra.

         Sandra 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.

         Later 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 that day.

         Officers 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.

         Sandra 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.

         On 9 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.

         At 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 trial:

[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 ...

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