RALEIGH, N.C. -- Joshua Stepp, a former Army infantryman who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was convicted Thursday of sex offense with a child by an adult and first-degree murder.
The verdict came after the six men and six women deliberated for nearly seven hours over the past three days.
Stepp was convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting Cheyenne Yarley, his 10-month-old stepdaughter.
Jurors will now have to decide whether he should be sentenced to death.
Defense attorneys tried to persuade jurors Tuesday that their client was incapable of plotting the child's death the night it occurred that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
"He wasn't able to premeditate," said Terry Alford, one of his lawyers.
Alford and Tommy Manning urged jurors to find Stepp guilty of second-degree murder, not first-degree murder and sexual assault, as prosecutors charged.
"There was no rape in this case. There was no sexual offense in this case," Alford said in his closing arguments.
Cheyenne was 10 months old when she died from severe head trauma. Medical examiners said there were bruises and abrasions around the girl's anus and vagina.
Prosecutors argue that the injuries were from a sexual assault. The defense contends that the wounds occurred when Stepp, while angry and inebriated, forcefully wiped his stepdaughter while changing a soiled diaper.
In closing arguments that took most of Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys offered radically different portrayals of Stepp.
Defense attorneys described the 28-year-old from Washington, N.C., as a "good father" who never sought treatment for mental health troubles that plagued him after he returned from Iraq.
Stepp, who married Cheyenne's mother five months before the infant's death, has an older daughter from his first marriage.
That marriage fell apart after he returned from Iraq and found out his first wife had been unfaithful. Stepp won custody of his daughter, and according to his attorneys, dropped out of the Army after that to dedicate more time to being a father.
In the months before Cheyenne's death, Stepp was trying to get back into the Army. He went to a military police training session out of state in October 2009, keeping to himself the post-traumatic stress.
Stepp, his attorneys say, did not seek help after coming back from Iraq, burying his emotions after seeing troop mates and friends killed by bombs. He kept to himself his feelings about picking up body pieces from one of those victims and putting them in a pizza box.
The night Cheyenne died, the defense team said, Stepp lost it.
Last week, Stepp took the stand and recalled how he rubbed Cheyenne's face into the carpet repeatedly to get her to stop crying. He told of roughing her up as he changed her diaper that night, but he could not remember how he got blood on his underwear or precisely what he told emergency workers and other adults that night.
Boz Zellinger, an assistant district attorney, questioned Stepp's ability to remember some parts of the night in great detail but draw a blank on others.
Prosecutors contend Stepp killed his stepdaughter during a sexual assault.
Zellinger disputed defense claims that Stepp was unable to control his actions the night Cheyenne died.
Stepp told dispatchers the infant had choked on toilet paper, then told emergency responders she had fallen off the couch and suffered rug burns.
Defense attorneys acknowledge that Stepp was not forthright in those initial accounts, but they dispute that it was an attempt to cover up what prosecutors contend.
"You've heard from Josh, you've heard from people who know Josh," Alford told jurors in closing arguments. "He just doesn't fit that." Zellinger lashed out at the defense in his closing argument.
"It's hard not to get angry," Zellinger told jurors. "The defense is: 'Poor Josh Stepp.' "
Zellinger contended that Stepp created a version of events that did not fit with the evidence. He argued that Stepp knew what he was doing, that his ability to provide false accounts to different emergency workers showed an ability to plot.
"What shows his competency more than his deception?" Zellinger said.
Zellinger tried to knock back the defense's contentions that post-traumatic stress disorder played a role in Stepp's actions, saying the arguments were demeaning to others in the military afflicted by such problems.
"This defense taints their suffering," Zellinger said.
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