No. COA 05-847 TWENTY-FIVE-B DISTRICT
NORTH CAROLINA COURT OF APPEALS
STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA )
JEREMY SCOTT STEELMON, )
- i -
Table of Authorities .........................ii
Question Presented ............................1
Statement of the Case .........................2
Statement of Grounds for Appellate Review .....3
Statement of the Facts ........................3
I. The trial court erred by receiving
Investigator Yoder as an expert in the
field of death scene investigation when
there was insufficient foundation to
establish his qualification as an expert
and by overruling Defendant’s objection to
Investigator Yoder’s testimony regarding
blood spatter and lividity when the
testimony was an inadmissible opinion. .7
A. Standard of Review ..................7
B. Argument ............................8
II. Abandonment of Remaining Assignments of
Certificate of Service .......................13
- ii -
TABLE OF AUTHORITIES
Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S.
579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993) ........ 9
Howerton v. Arai Helmet, Ltd., 358 N.C. 440, 597
S.E.2d 674 (2004) .................................. 9
State v. Brackett, 55 N.C.App. 410, 285 S.E.2d 852,
rev'd on other grounds, 306 N.C. 138, 291 S.E.2d 660
(1982) ............................................. 9
State v. Brown, 314 N.C. 588, 336 S.E.2d 388 (1985)
State v. Bullard, 312 N.C. 129, 322 S.E.2d 370 (1984)
State v. East, 345 N.C. 535, 481 S.E.2d 652 (1997)
State v. Goode, 341 N.C. 513, 461 S.E.2d 631 (1995).. 9
State v. Israel, 353 N.C. 211, 539 S.E.2d 633 (2000) 11
State v. Ledford, 315 N.C. 599, 340 S.E.2d 309 (1986)
State v. Mann, 355 N.C. 294, 560 S.E.2d 776 (2002).. 11
State v. Marecek, 152 N.C.App. 479, 568 S.E.2d 237
(2002) ............................................ 11
State v. Phifer, 290 N.C. 203, 225 S.E.2d 786 (1976). 9
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-27(2004)........................ 3
N.C. R. App. P. 28 (2004)........................... 12
N.C. R. Civ. P. 702 (2004)........................... 8
No. COA 05-847 TWENTY-FIVE-B DISTRICT
NORTH CAROLINA COURT OF APPEALS
STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA )
JEREMY SCOTT STEELMON, )
I. Whether the trial court erred by receiving Investigator
Yoder as an expert in the field of death scene investiga-
tion when there was insufficient foundation to establish
his qualification as an expert and by overruling Defen-
dant’s objection to Investigator Yoder’s testimony re-
garding blood spatter and lividity when the testimony was
an inadmissible opinion.
- 2 -
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
During the Criminal Session of Catawba County Superior
Court, the Honorable David S. Cayer, Judge presiding, Defendant-
Appellant Jeremy Scott Steelmon was tried capitally by jury and
found guilty of First Degree Murder under the Felony Murder
Rule, Second Degree Burglary, and Entering a Vehicle with Intent
to Steal. (R. pp. 5-6.) At the beginning of the sentencing phase
of the trial, the State elected to forego the death penalty. (T.
Vol. 8, p. 3713, line 24-p. 3714, line 2.)
Judge Cayer arrested judgment in the Second Degree Burglary
conviction, due to its being the felony underlying the First De-
gree Murder conviction. He found that Mr. Steelmon had a level
II prior record. Judge Cayer sentenced Mr. Steelmon to 45 days
on the charge of Entering a Vehicle with Intent to Steal and
life imprisonment on the charge of First Degree Murder. Mr.
Steelmon gave oral Notice of Appeal in open court immediately
after sentencing. (R. pp. 9-14.)
The Clerk ordered the transcript on March 2, 2004. (R. p.
16.) The Court Reporter delivered the transcript to the attor-
neys of record on June 28, 2004. (R. p. 18.) The trial court and
the Court of Appeals extended the time to serve the Proposed
Record on Appeal until January 5, 2005. (R. pp. 23.) Counsel for
Defendant served the proposed Record on January 5, 2005. On Jan-
- 3 -
uary 24, 2005, she received a document from the State that the
parties agreed to include in the Record, which was then settled
by operation of law. (R. p. 24.)
Counsel timely shipped the Record to the Court of Appeals
via UPS. When the printed record was not received after a leng-
thy time lapse, she contacted the Clerk of the Court of Appeals
and was told neither the eight volume transcript nor the Record
could be found. She immediately re-sent the Record on Appeal,
which was filed on June 30, 2005. The transcript was subsequent-
ly discovered in the Clerk’s office while counsel was in the
process of having it recopied for the Court. By order of the
Court of Appeals, the Record was deemed timely filed. (R. pp. 1
and 28.) The Record was docketed on June 30, 2005. (R. p. 1.)
The Clerk mailed the printed Record on Appeal on July 26, 2005.
STATEMENT OF GROUNDS FOR APPELLATE REVIEW
This appeal arises from the final judgment of the Superior
Court in a criminal matter following trial by jury. N.C. Gen.
Stat. § 7A-27(b)(2004) confers grounds for appellate review.
STATEMENT OF THE FACTS
Hickory Police Investigator Brett Porter was on patrol on
July 20, 2001 when he was dispatched to 825 18th Street N.E., the
home of Jean Wolff. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2045, lines 12-25; p. 2049,
lines 24-25; p. 2054, lines 9-11; and p. 2091, lines 9-10.) He
- 4 -
arrived on the scene at approximately 10:27 p.m. and was met by
two neighbors. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2050, lines 11-22.) Officer Por-
ter, the neighbors, and a ride-along for the night walked down
the driveway at 825 18th Street N.E. to the back, where a car was
parked in a carport. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2051, lines 14-17) Looking
into the car, Officer Porter saw keys hanging in the ignition.
(T. Vol. 5, p. 2052, lines 21-23.)
While Officer Porter was looking in the car, one of the
neighbors, Ms. Trudeau, opened the home’s back door. (T. Vol. 5,
p. 2052, line 25-p. 2053, line 2.) The officer joined her and
looked in the house through the open door. Inside, he saw a
purse with its contents spilled. He instructed everyone to stay
outside while he entered the home, announcing that he was a po-
lice officer and calling “Miss Jean.” (T. Vol. 5, p. 2053, lines
17-20.) As he moved into the house, Officer Porter noted an
overturned kitchen trash can, and then came upon the body of
Mrs. Wolff, lying on her side. After failing to locate a pulse,
Officer Porter left the house and called for emergency services
personnel and additional police officers, who responded a short
time later. (T. Vol. 5, p. 3055, lines 6-16 and p. 2056, line 8-
p. 2057, line 9.)
Earlier that evening, Mrs. Wolff had been at church choir
practice, according to Judith Rion, a fellow choir member. Prac-
tice ended at 9:15 or 9:30. The members talked for a five or ten
- 5 -
minutes before Mrs. Rion left. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2386, lines 10-
Hickory Police Officer Norris Yoder was the crime scene in-
vestigator in Mrs. Wolff’s death. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2088, line 17-
p. 2089, line 7.) Entering the home through the back door, Of-
ficer Yoder saw, photographed, and then picked up several per-
sonal items scattered on the floor near a lady’s purse. (T. Vol.
5, p. 2107, line 12-p. 2018, line 4; and p. 2111, lines 14-18.)
Officer Yoder also saw and photographed Mrs. Wolff’s body. (T.
Vol. 5, p. 2114, lines 10-18.) He testified that she lay on her
left side in the middle of the kitchen floor with her left arm
straight out. She had a cut on her left wrist and there was a
small amount of blood on the floor under her wrist. A pair of
glasses was on the floor near her head and there was a small
blood stain on the floor immediately in front of her body. (T.
vol. 5, p. 2115, lines 11-23.)
Over defendant’s objections, Officer Yoder was permitted to
testify as an expert witness as an expert in the field of death
scene investigation, and to express opinions about the time of
death and Mrs. Wolff’s position when her wrist was injured. (T.
Vol. 5, p. 2147, lines 17-23.) Officer Yoder testified that in
his opinion, Mrs. Wolff was lying on the floor when her wrist
was cut. He also testified that she had died several hours be-
- 6 -
fore she was found. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2148, line 8-p. 2149, line
When he first arrived on the scene around 11:20 that night,
Officer Yoder walked around the house with his flashlight. He
saw some papers lying under the window on the front porch, but
did not pick them up. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2097, lines 7-16 and p.
2100, line 9-p. 2101, line 8.) When he returned to the items
later, he discovered they were bank receipts with the name “Je-
remy Steelmon” on them. Officer Yoder also found that the window
screen above the papers was cut on two sides and at the bottom.
(T. Vol. 5, p. 2152, lines 2-20.) Several days later, on July
26, Officer Yoder and four other officers went to a wooded area
near Mrs. Wolff’s home. In a clearing there, they found a key
ring with several keys and Allstate insurance papers. The papers
showed Jeremy Steelmon as the policy holder. (T. Vol. 5, p.
2165, line 24-p. 2171, line 2.)
Christopher Ledford testified that he and defendant Jeremy
Steelmon were friends from 1999-2001. (T. vol. 5, p. 2289, lines
19-24.) Mr. Ledford was a supervisor at KFC in Catawba County at
the time of Mrs. Wolff’s death. (T. p. 2290, lines 15-25.) On
July 19, 2001, Mr. Steelmon came to KFC in the morning to eat.
He returned that afternoon to fill out a job application. Mr.
Ledford was there and saw him both times. The two young men also
spoke by phone around 10:30 or 11:00 that evening, when Mr.
- 7 -
Steelmon phoned Mr. Ledford and asked if he could stay with him
that night. Mr. Ledford said no. (T. vol. 5, p. 2292, line 22–p.
2294, line 23.) In the early morning hours of July 20, Mr.
Steelmon again called Mr. Ledford, this time at his parents’
house. In the course of the forty-five minute conversation, Mr.
Ledford testified, Mr. Steelmon said that he had broken into an
old woman’s house and was going to rob it. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2295,
line 23–p. 2297, line 15.) A short time later, as Mr. Ledford
headed to his sister’s home in the early morning hours, Mr.
Steelmon called on his cell phone and said he had killed the old
woman by slitting her wrists. (T. Vol. 5, p. 2330, line 17-p.
2301, line 17.)
I. The trial court erred by receiving Investigator Yoder as an
expert in the field of death scene investigation when there
was insufficient foundation to establish his qualification
as an expert and by overruling Defendant’s objection to In-
vestigator Yoder’s testimony regarding blood spatter and
lividity when the testimony was an inadmissible opinion.
Assignment of Error No. 1
T Vol. 5, p. 2146, line 14-17; p. 2147, line 17-23; p.
2148, line 7-p. 2149, line 7.
A. Standard of Review
A trial court’s decision to qualify a witness as an expert
is reviewed for abuse of discretion. State v. Bullard, 312 N.C.
129, 322 S.E.2d 370 (1984).
- 8 -
Over the defendant’s objection, Officer Yoder was permitted
to testify as an expert in death scene investigation. In order
to establish the time of death, he testified that the lividity
of Mrs. Wolff’s body on the kitchen floor suggested that she had
been killed several hours earlier. The objectionable testimony
attempted to establish the time of Mrs. Wolff’s death and her
position when her left wrist was injured. (T Vol. 5, p. 2146,
line 14-17; p. 2147, line 17-23; p. 2148, line 7-p. 2149, line
7.) Officer Yoder was not properly qualified as an expert. Fur-
ther, the testimony went beyond the scope of the officer’s ex-
pertise and was therefore impermissible. The trial court abused
its discretion by qualifying Officer Yoder as an expert and per-
mitting him to offer an expert opinion regarding medical condi-
The North Carolina Rules of Evidence provide:
If scientific, technical or other specialized know-
ledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the
evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness
qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, expe-
rience, training, or education, may testify thereto in
the form of an opinion.
N.C. R. Civ. P. 702(a) (2004).
The record in the present case shows that the officer’s opinion
testimony went beyond the bounds of his expertise. The matters
- 9 -
to which he testified were not within his area of specialized
knowledge, but medical matters.
As a general rule, "[a]n expert witness is a person who is
better qualified than the jury to form an opinion from facts in
evidence." State v. Brackett, 55 N.C.App. 410, 416, 285 S.E.2d
852, 857, rev'd on other grounds, 306 N.C. 138, 291 S.E.2d 660
(1982). Our Supreme Court has declined to follow the federal
test regarding expert testimony, as set forth in Daubert v. Mer-
rell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786,
125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). In Howerton v. Arai Helmet, Ltd., 358
N.C. 440, 463, 597 S.E.2d 674, 689 (2004), our Supreme Court
held that the admissibility of expert testimony under North Car-
olina's Rule 702 is governed by the two factors set out in State
v. Goode, 341 N.C. 513, 461 S.E.2d 631 (1995): (1) whether the
expert is proposing to testify to scientific, technical, or oth-
er specialized knowledge that will assist the trier of fact to
determine a fact in issue and (2) whether the witness testifying
at trial is qualified as an expert to apply this method to the
specific facts of the case. Our Supreme Court has said:
The essential question determining the admissibility
of opinion evidence is whether the witness, through
study and experience, has acquired such skill that he
is better qualified than the jury to form an opinion
as to the subject matter to which his testimony ap-
State v. Phifer, 290 N.C. 203, 213, 225 S.E.2d 786,
- 10 -
Officer Yoder testified that he had received training in
death scene investigation, including blood spatter and lividity,
at Appalachian State University, Western Piedmont Community Col-
lege, and the North Carolina Homicide Investigators Association.
While his testimony shows that he has been exposed to the topic
of death scene investigation and lividity in his training, this
exposure does not automatically qualify him as an expert under
Rule 702. Nor does it qualify him to express a medical opinion
about the time of death, as he did in this case. He did not pro-
vide sufficient information for the judge to reasonably conclude
that he was “better qualified than the jury to form an opinion
as to the subject matter to which his testimony applies.” Id.
In the present case, Officer Yoder expressed a medical opi-
nion about two critical issues. The State offered evidence
through several witnesses trying to pinpoint the time of Mrs.
Wolff’s death, but only Officer Yoder testified with the weight
of authority granted an expert to confirm the puzzle the State
attempted to piece together through the testimony of other wit-
nesses. His opinion regarding the time of death and Mrs. Wolff’s
position when her wrist was wounded were critical to the State.
Because he was not properly qualified as an expert and because
the testimony went beyond the bounds of the area for which the
court qualified him, the trial court erred. Compare State v.
- 11 -
Taylor, 354 N.C. 28, 550 S.E.2d 141 (2001), in which the Supreme
Court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to qualify defense wit-
ness as expert on the grounds that his testimony was not in the
specific area of his expertise and was cumulative, and State v.
East, 345 N.C. 535, 481 S.E.2d 652 (1997), in which the Supreme
Court affirmed the trial court’s admission of blood spatter tes-
timony of officer-expert who relied on other physical evidence
to support her opinion.
The interpretation of evidence to determine time of death
and position of a body when wounded is the province of a medical
expert, not a crime scene technician taking photographs. See,
e.g., State v. Mann, 355 N.C. 294, 560 S.E.2d 776 (2002); State
v. Israel, 353 N.C. 211, 539 S.E.2d 633 (2000); and State v. Ma-
recek, 152 N.C.App. 479, 568 S.E.2d 237 (2002). In each of these
cases, the time of death was determined by a medical expert. As
this opinion testimony was not in the province of Officer Yo-
der’s education, training, skills, or experience, it is inad-
missible under Rule 702. Compare State v. Ledford, 315 N.C. 599,
340 S.E.2d 309 (1986), in which the pathologist testified about
settling of the blood and other medical matters and State v.
Brown, 314 N.C. 588, 336 S.E.2d 388 (1985), in which a physician
testified as a medical expert about blood settling.
The time of Mrs. Wolff’s death was a critical part of the
State’s evidence. Because Officer Yoder was wrongfully permitted
- 12 -
to offer medical testimony regarding the time of her death and
the body position when her wrist wound occurred, the defendant
was harmed by its improper admission.
II. Abandonment of Remaining Assignments of Error
Appellant does not argue his remaining assignments of error
herein and therefore, voluntarily abandons them. N.C. R. App. P.
28 (b)(6) (2004).
Wherefore, Defendant-Appellant respectfully prays this
1. Hold that the trial court abused its discretion by quali-
fying Officer Yoder as an expert in death scene investigation
and permitting him to testify to medical issues;
2. Set aside the convictions and sentences in these matters;
3. Grant Defendant-Appellant such other and further relief
as the Court deems just and proper.
Respectfully submitted this the 26th day of September 2005.
Leslie C. Rawls
Attorney for Defendant-Appellant
PO Box 38325
Charlotte, NC 28278
- 13 -
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
I hereby certify that I served the foregoing Appellant-
Defendant’s Brief on all parties to this action by depositing a
copy of the document in the United States Mail, properly wrapped
with postage attached, addressed to:
David Roy Blackwell
Special Deputy Attorney General
NC Department of Justice ---Special Litigation
9001 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-9001
This the 27th day of September 2005.