Local News

Defense blames PTSD for infant's beating death

Posted August 22, 2011 2:12 p.m. EDT
Updated August 22, 2011 6:49 p.m. EDT

— An Iraq war veteran facing a possible death sentence for the death of his 10-month-old stepdaughter was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was self-medicating with alcohol and prescription painkillers when he beat her to death inside their Raleigh home nearly two years ago, his defense attorney told jurors Monday.

Attorney Thomas Manning said that Cheyenne Emery Yarley's death was a "perfect storm" of substance abuse and PTSD that "blew up" as Joshua Andrew Stepp tried to quiet and comfort the crying child.

"This attack was a singularity in Josh Stepp's existence. That's what the evidence will show," Manning said. "Never before had it happened – had anything happened."

Stepp, 28, is on trial for first-degree murder and first-degree sex offense in Cheyenne's Nov. 8, 2009, death. He called 911, saying she had choked on toilet paper, but an autopsy found she died of abusive head trauma.

Prosecutors said in opening statements that Stepp sexually assaulted, beat, shook and slammed the girl's face into the carpet while her mother was at work, leaving her face like a "grotesque scarlet mask."

"There was a constellation of injuries inflicted upon this child over an hour – not a moment, not a second, but an hour," Wake County Assistant District Attorney Adam Moyers said. "He was supposed to take care of her, and he murdered her."

There was no indication that she choked on toilet paper, and Stepp's story that she had also fallen off a couch and suffered a rug burn didn't make sense to first responders.

"The suffering was such that this baby girl, who barely had teeth, bit her own tongue, lacerating it," Moyers said. "The physical damage to her brain was more than her life could sustain."

There was also evidence of sexual assault, Moyers said, and blood on Stepp's underwear matched Cheyenne's.

The defense disputed the sex assault charge, saying there were no internal injuries and no blood or DNA on Stepp's body. The injuries that the state contends are signs of sexual abuse, Manning said, happened while his client was changing a dirty diaper.

"There's no dispute that (Stepp) injured this child and that his infliction of injuries killed this child. The 'why of it' is very much the issue," Manning said.

Stepp had been an infantryman and weapons expert with the U.S. Army and was training soldiers in the Iraqi military when members of his unit were killed by an improvised explosive device, Manning said, and Stepp had to help collect the body parts of his fellow soldiers.

"He never complained … but along the way, as a result of things that happened earlier in his life and while in the Army, he developed the symptoms of PTSD," Manning said.

Instead of seeking treatment at a VA hospital, he turned to alcohol and painkillers.

"He was trying to get back into the Army, and he was managing whatever was wrong with him – and doing quite well," Manning said.

Stepp had been drinking heavily and taken four painkillers on Nov. 8, 2009, when his wife went to work, leaving him to care for the child.

"There's no excusing what happened, certainly, and there is no pity being asked here," Manning said. "But understanding what happened and why – and getting it right and finding the correct crime, which Josh Stepp has committed, is very much at issue."

"When all the evidence is in from the state," he continued, "we're going to be asking you to convict him of the offense, which the evidence and all of the evidence supports, not what the state contends."