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Defense, state argue in Raleigh stepdad's murder trial

Posted September 6, 2011

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— Defense attorneys trying to keep an Iraq war veteran off death row argued Tuesday that his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder – combined with prescription painkillers and alcohol – incapacitated him to the point that he was mentally incapable of planning and carrying out the alleged sexual assault and beating death of his 10-month-old stepdaughter.

"He's got to pay for what he did, but what we're asking you is to not make him pay for what he didn't do," attorney Terry Alford told jurors during closing arguments of 28-year-old Joshua Andrew Stepp's first-degree murder trial.

Stepp, Alford said, is guilty of second-degree murder in Cheyenne Yarley's Nov. 8, 2009, death – something Stepp does not deny.

Testifying on his behalf, Stepp admitted that he beat, shook and slammed Cheyenne into the carpet of their Raleigh apartment when she wouldn't stop crying. But he didn't know why he did it, he said.

"He felt something was going on with his brain that day," Alford told jurors, adding that his client was trying to self-medicate in any way he could.

"Josh was on a mission to get drunk, and he can't explain it," Alford said. "That makes a lot more sense than 'I think that when I get home, I'm going to rape my 10-month-old child, and in doing so, I'm going to hurt and injure her so bad.'"

But Stepp did not sexually abuse the girl, Alford said.

Injuries to Cheyenne's body were consistent with sexual assault, state witnesses testified during Stepp's two-week trial, but they could not say for sure what caused them. Although the child's blood was found on Stepp's underwear, Cheyenne's DNA wasn't found on Stepp's body.

Josh Stepp Defense, state argue in Raleigh stepdad's murder trial

The injuries, Alford said, happened as Stepp, unable to control his frustration of the crying infant, changed her diaper several times that night – injuries "consistent with harsh cleaning, using a finger and wipes in an overly aggressive way."

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger argued, however, that Stepp was angry because he had to leave a local sports bar to take care of Cheyenne while her mother worked. He knew exactly what he was doing and tried to rape her and then cover up the crime, Zellinger said.

"Men and women come back form wars afflicted with PTSD. This defense taints their suffering," Zellinger said. "This defense perverts that disease. Having PTSD does not make you rape and sexually assault a 10-month-old."

Stepp's cognitive abilities were not affected that night, Zellinger said, and his ability to remember insignificant details while forgetting important events was somewhat of a convenience for him.

"He remembers making a decision to wet the toilet paper (that he put in her mouth to try to get her quiet), but he doesn't remember punching Cheyenne in the head, and he doesn't remember how he got her blood inside his underwear," Zellinger said.

It's unreasonable, he added, to think that Cheyenne's blood could have gotten on his underwear any way other than a sexual assault.

"There's no defense to the sex offense. There's no defense to felony murder by that sex offense, and as to everything else, the defense is weak in that the evidence is overwhelming," Zellinger said. "The only thing that can lead you away from that evidence is the defendant's word – and that's a man who lied repeatedly that night while his stepdaughter was dying."

Stepp told his wife that the child fell off the couch and hurt her face, Zellinger reminded jurors, and told a 911 dispatcher, firefighters and police officers that she choked on toilet paper.

"This assault wasn't a one-second thing and then 911 was called," he said. "This assault took place over an hour and a half, a torturous hour and a half, for this 10-month-old child to live through –that she didn't live through."

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Wednesday.


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  • Tired of thoughtlessness Sep 7, 2011

    The details of what happened to that baby made me physically ill.

  • jurydoc Sep 7, 2011

    It appears that the first degree murder charge is based solely on a theory of felony murder. That is, the murder took place during the commission of another felony. Therefore, if the underlying felony (I assume the rape, but could be felony child abuse. The article isn't thorough.) isn't found, then first degree can't be found. Just an FYI.

  • Wendellcatlover Sep 7, 2011

    NC needs to take away the moratorium on the death penalty even if it's only for this 1 individual. He deserves nothing less! Sorry, but how can you beat a child for an hour and a half? Guilty of 1st degree!!!

  • got2bsaid Sep 6, 2011

    They said the baby cried whenever Mom left to start with... that's because this guy hurts her... he was under the influence and sexually assaulted that beautiful baby girl - how else does her blood get in her underwear... disgusting.
    @AirBorne - you are right!

  • Sep 6, 2011

    1st degree murder or the whole judicial system has failed this little girl.

  • NoObamaCare Sep 6, 2011

    A perfect example of why the Death Penalty was created!!