Jury begins deliberations in Stepp murder trial
Posted September 7, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County jury on Wednesday began deliberating the fate of a Raleigh man accused of sexually assaulting and killing his 10-month-old stepdaughter.
The six men and six women spent more than three and a half hours deciding whether Joshua Andrew Stepp tried to rape and then intentionally beat to death Cheyenne Yarley in their apartment on the evening of Nov. 8, 2009.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Stepp, 28, could face the death penalty.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, jurors sent out a note to Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith asking to see photos of the child's injuries and of the crime scene, where the state says Stepp slammed Cheyenne's face into the carpet while her mother was at work, leaving her with a "grotesque scarlet mask."
Taking the witness stand in his own defense last week, Stepp admitted to injuring the child when she would not stop crying, but he said he didn't know why he did it. He denied sexually assaulting her.
Defense attorney Terry Alford argued in closing arguments Tuesday that the Iraq war veteran is guilty of second-degree murder because he was drunk and high on prescription painkillers – Stepp's self-treatment for his then-undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder from his 2005 tour of duty.
The combination of drugs and alcohol, attorneys argued, left him mentally incapable of planning and carrying out Cheyenne's attack.
Police ignored that possibility, Alford argued, saying that they had a theory early on in the case and set out to prove it, unintentionally ignoring other evidence.
"You know what happened," Alford told jurors. "You can feel it in your mind what happened: Here is a 10-month-old child dead with those injuries to the bottom. Boom! Conclusion: We've got a vile, vicious mean guy that tried to rape his 10-month-old stepchild. Let's go out and prove it.
"They didn't intentionally do anything wrong, but what they did is they came to a conclusion too early," he added. "They stopped investigating and started prosecuting."
But Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said Stepp knew exactly what he was doing and that his cognitive abilities were not impaired that night.
"He intended to kill her," Zellinger said. "We know that because, one, she's dead, and two, he has all the capacity in the world that night to formulate and cover up what he did."
Zellinger said Stepp had to leave early from watching a football game at a sports bar to care for his stepdaughter and that he tried to rape her because he was angry.
"Rape is a crime of anger, a crime of force, power, control, and when the defendant walked into that apartment, that's what happened," Zellinger said.
There was no other reason why Cheyenne's blood was found on Stepp's underwear, he said.
Defense attorneys reminded jurors that there was no DNA evidence suggesting a sexual assault and that doctors and the medical examiner couldn't say definitively whether injuries to the child's vaginal and anal areas were caused by a penis.
They argued that Stepp injured her while changing Cheyenne's messy diapers by using a finger and wipes in an "overly aggressive way."
"These injuries came about with Josh having to change diapers in a stage where he couldn't be gentle," Alford said. "He couldn't be gentle that night. The head to the floor was harder than he meant it to be. The cleaning was harder than he meant it to be."