Stepdad found guilty in infant's beating death
Posted September 8, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County jury on Thursday found Joshua Andrew Stepp guilty of first-degree murder and sex offense of a child in the beating death of his 10-month-old stepdaughter almost two years ago.
Stepp, 28, took the witness stand last week in his own defense, admitting that he beat, shook and slammed Cheyenne Yarley's face into the carpet of their Raleigh home on Nov. 8, 2009, when she wouldn't stop crying.
An autopsy found the child died from abusive head trauma.
Defense attorneys working to keep Stepp from facing a possible death penalty argued Tuesday that the Iraq war veteran used painkillers and alcohol as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and that the combination of the three, along with Cheyenne's nonstop crying, led to the crime.
They said his actions amounted to second-degree murder because he was incapacitated at the time.
Prosecutors, however, argued that Stepp knew what he was doing when he also sexually assaulted Cheyenne.
Injuries to her anal and vaginal areas were consistent with sexual abuse, witnesses testified, but Stepp maintained that he never sexually assaulted his stepdaughter. Those injuries, he said, happened because he was rough with her as he changed her diaper several times that night.
"I hurt her, and I have to live with that. That's my life sentence right there," he testified. "But there's no way I could do anything sexual to any of my kids, to any kids period."
The jury deliberated for about seven hours on Wednesday and Thursday before finding him guilty under the state's first-degree felony murder rule – meaning the killing happened during the commission of another crime.
Jurors must now decide whether Stepp should be sentenced to death for the crimes or spend the rest of his life in prison without parole.
A sentencing hearing started late Thursday afternoon during which family members testified that they thought Stepp was a good father to Cheyenne and to his now-6-year-old daughter and that the crimes he was convicted of are out of character for him.
"I was completely and utterly shocked when I heard the charges," Stepp's cousin, John Chilton, said. "He doesn't fit the profile of someone who'd do what he's accused of."
Stepp successfully fought against his first wife for custody of their daughter, friends testified. Being a single father, they said, he left the Army to take care of her.
"This is not like Josh. This is not the Josh I know," Stepp's father, Frank Stepp said tearfully on the witness stand.
Frank Stepp said that his son was a sweet little boy growing up who was always happy and got along with everyone. In school, he was sometimes mischievous but in a funny way.
"This is my son, and I love him. I feel like I'm looking at my kid in the street and something's about to hit him, and I can't get to him," he said. "And now, I want to take him home, and I can't do that.
"He's got a little girl. She's been crying for her dad, 'I want my dad. I want my dad.'"
Military members Stepp served with in the Army told jurors the horrors they saw serving in Iraq. In one case, they spoke of the job of clearing bodies after a bombing.
"Those experiences were very graphic in nature," Stepp's friend, Danny Arellano, said.