Kilah Davenport’s family waited more than 3 1/2 years for Joshua Houser to finally admit Wednesday to what he did to the girl.
It was a child abuse case that stunned the region and led to “Kilah’s Law,” which toughened child abuse laws in North Carolina, and to new federal reporting requirements.
In May 2012, in a rage, Houser rammed his 3-year-old stepdaughter’s head through the wall of their Indian Trail home. That assault left Kilah permanently impaired with damage to 90 percent of her brain. She finally succumbed to the injuries in March 2014, weeks after Houser was convicted of felony child abuse charges.
After Kilah died, Houser was charged with second-degree murder. That case culminated in his surprise guilty plea Wednesday in an emotionally charged half-hour hearing.
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When asked by Union County Superior Court Judge David Lee if he was guilty, Houser quietly answered, “Yes, sir.”
In the front row of the courtroom, Kilah’s mother, Kirbi Davenport Eremity, slightly bowed her head while her mother, Leslie Davenport, teared up.
You were supposed to love Kilah. You were never supposed to hurt her.
Kirbi Davenport Eremity
Lee sentenced Houser, 26, to a minimum of 13 years to up to nearly 17 years in prison, part of a negotiated deal and the maximum he was eligible for without going to trial.
In brief testimony, Eremity addressed Houser and said: “You were supposed to love Kilah. You were never supposed to hurt her. ... You destroyed the perfect creature God let us borrow. You destroyed her spirit, her smile, her laugh.”
But, she added as her voice quivered, he could not destroy their memories of Kilah.
“We want you to know, as a family, we forgive you, because it was our only way we could be the best for Kilah.”
Houser stared ahead and did not look at Eremity.
And he glanced down at the defense table while prosecutors Craig Principe and Mary Beth Usher summarized the attack that left Kilah with a fractured skull and unable to walk or talk.
Every so often a case like this comes around that runs you over like a freight train.
Union County DA Trey Robison
At his trial last year, Houser denied hurting Kilah and claimed he loved her. Prosecutors said he used her “like a battering ram” to slam her head into a Sheetrock wall.
Kilah was in the courtroom in February 2014 when Houser was convicted on felony child abuse charges and sentenced to 7 1/2 years to over 10 years in prison. The new sentence replaces the old one.
The 4-year-old’s autopsy found she died of pneumonia due to complications of injuries from the assault. Diabetes, which Kilah did not have before the attack, contributed to her death.
“Your actions,” Eremity said to Houser in court, “took my baby’s life, and we pray you ask God for forgiveness.”
An emotional impact
After the sentencing, Davenport said the family was relieved the case was finally over. They felt a sense of closure with Houser’s admission of guilt and appreciation for the work of prosecutors and law enforcement.
Their faith, she said, allowed them to forgive.
Union County District Attorney Trey Robison said the case resonated emotionally with everyone in his office who dealt with it.
“From a prosecutor’s point of view, there’s no more agonizing case to work than a child homicide,” he said. “We are people, too, with family and with kids. And every so often a case like this comes around that runs you over like a freight train.”
After Houser’s 2012 arrest, Kilah’s family did not think the length of prison time he might serve was long enough.
They joined with community activists and politicians to fight for what would become “Kilah’s Law,” which increased sentencing terms in five child-abuse related felonies. Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law in 2013.
Because Houser’s crime happened before the law began, he was not eligible for the stiffer sentence.
Nationally, President Barack Obama signed into law last year the Kilah Davenport Child Protection Act. It directs the attorney general to issue a report detailing every state’s child abuse laws, and whether they allow for increased penalties for severe cases.
That law was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican. In a statement, he praised the Davenports’ work to “bring much good out of great evil.”
Houser is being held in protective custody in a medium-security prison in Warren County, three hours northwest of Charlotte. Prisoners can be taken out of the regular population when they express fear for their own safety, according to the state.
In prison, he has twice been cited for infractions this year, for fighting and for profane language, records show.
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Lee commended Kilah’s family for pushing for stronger laws but added, “There is no justice in the loss of a child. There simply is not.”