Local News

Mom heard 'different scream' the night infant daughter died

Posted August 23, 2011 6:57 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2011 6:22 a.m. EDT

— The mother of an infant who Raleigh police say was sexually abused and killed at the hands of her stepfather said Tuesday that she had second thoughts about going to work at Fort Bragg on the night her daughter died Nov. 8, 2009.

"I actually had thought about driving back home, but I didn't," Brittany Yarley testified Tuesday in her ex-husband's first-degree murder trial. "He had advised me that she had fallen off the couch and that she had a rug burn and that it wasn't that serious."

It was a "very different scream," Yarley recalled, almost as if 10-month-old Cheyenne Yarley were "extremely hurt," but Joshua Stepp had been able to handle situations like that before, she said.

It was the last time, she said, she heard her daughter's voice.

Within the hour, Stepp called 911, reporting that his stepdaughter had choked on some toilet paper inside their Raleigh home.

Doctors at WakeMed in Raleigh worked for more than 15 minutes to try to revive her but were unsuccessful. By then, Yarley said, she had talked to Stepp a second time.

"The defendant got on the phone and said it was really bad," she said. "At that time, a nurse on site had picked up the phone and had advised me that I needed to come to WakeMed."

When she arrived at the hospital, Yarley said, Dr. Sammy Saad told her they noticed injuries to child's body that could have been from sexual trauma and head injuries that weren't consistent with a fall from a couch.

"Her mom's first response was Josh would not do that," Saad, a pediatric emergency physician, testified, "and we ended the discussion at that time. She didn't have any further questions."

Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty against Stepp, 28, say he sexually assaulted, beat, shook and slammed Cheyenne's face into the carpet for nearly an hour, leaving her with a scarlet mask of burns and injuries.

Defense attorneys don't deny that he killed the girl but say Stepp, an Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, can't explain why he did what he did. He had been drinking at the time and had taken a heavy dose of painkillers.

Stepp, they say, will tell his story to the jurors when he testifies on his own behalf.

They do dispute the sexual assault claim. They say Cheyenne was injured when a frustrated Stepp had to repeatedly change her dirty diaper. Defense attorneys say investigators found none of the girl's DNA on Stepp, even though her blood was found in his underwear.

Saad, though, said that, based on his experience, that the bruising and tearing in her anal and genital regions were consistent with sexual trauma and that they could not have been caused with a finger or knuckle, as the defense claims.

When he confronted Stepp, he said, Stepp said nothing.

"I told him that Cheyenne died and that she had some injuries that are not consistent with falling off the couch. I explained there was some evidence of physical and sexual abuse," Saad said. "His face was down, as far as I remember, and he walked away."

Testimony is expected to resume Thursday.