A case that led to a tougher child abuse law in North Carolina – and a similar national effort – neared its conclusion Wednesday as the young victim murmured quietly in her mother’s arms from the front row of the courtroom.
The emotional day saw the defendant testify that he loved the victim and never hurt her; prosecutors scoffed at that assertion. The jury began deliberations before breaking for the day and will resume Thursday.
Joshua Houser, 24, is charged with abusing his stepdaughter Kilah Davenport so badly that she nearly died during the May 2012 incident in their Indian Trail home. She was 3 at the time. Her skull was fractured, and 90 percent of her brain was damaged.
Prosecutors allege that he picked up the girl, after she had soiled herself, and smashed her head into a Sheetrock wall “like a battering ram.” She nearly died and remains severely impaired.
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Houser said he punched the wall in frustration when a 911 operator couldn’t understand the address he was giving as he sought help for Kilah, whom he said had gotten hurt in a fall in the house.
Defense attorney Miles Helms said what happened to Kilah was heartbreaking, but that the state had not met its burden of proof.
Assistant District Attorney Anne Reeves called it outlandish to suggest Kilah’s injuries were from a fall.
“You all are not fools,” she told the jury. “His story is ridiculous.”
‘Kilah’s Law’ increases penalties
After Houser’s arrest, Kilah’s family, community activists and others pushed for “Kilah’s Law,” to increase penalties in North Carolina for felony child abuse cases because they felt laws at the time were not harsh enough.
Last April, with Kilah and her family looking on, Gov. Pat McCrory signed “Kilah’s Law,” which increases penalties in five child abuse-related felonies.
“This is no doubt probably the most emotional bill I’ll sign as governor,” McCrory said at the event. “Kilah, you’re beautiful. Thanks for helping us out.”
If convicted, Houser faces 44 to 123 months in prison. Had Kilah’s Law been in place when he was charged, he would have faced 125 to 201 months in prison.
In the worst abuse cases, a person who previously faced up to 15 years in prison would now serve a maximum of nearly 33 years.
Last March, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger unveiled a bill named for Kilah that would strip money for child abuse programs from states that don’t raise mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted in serious child abuse cases.
The House unanimously passed the plan, and it is awaiting Senate action.
Girl’s life changed in an instant
Houser testified for more than an hour. He spoke at such a fast clip that the judge and court reporter needed to tell him to slow down so he could be understood.
Houser said he had a child with another woman but considered Kilah “my daughter to this day.”
In May 2012, he was unemployed and Kilah’s mother, Kirbi, who was pregnant with their child, was working at a dog grooming shop.
Houser was alone and taking care of Kilah for the two days before she was injured while his wife was at work.
The next day, around the end of the afternoon, Houser said Kilah told him she had to pee. He said he saw her pants were wet, “popped her on the butt” and told her to go to her bathroom.
That’s when Houser said he heard a thud, scooped her up as she soiled herself again and took her to the bed to lie down. He said he then called 911 when she appeared to be nonresponsive.
In response to his attorney’s questions, Houser repeatedly denied hurting Kilah.
“I didn’t do it. I won’t admit to something I know I didn’t do,” Houser said.
During his closing argument, defense attorney Helms questioned why the state did not call certain people as witnesses and noted there was no wallboard residue in Kilah’s hair. Helms asked if Houser supposedly grabbed Kilah in a fit of rage, why were there no hand marks on her.
“It’s impossible this occurred the way the state said it occurred,” Helms said.
Throughout the afternoon, Kirbi’s mother wrapped her arm tightly around her daughter’s shoulder. Kirbi occasionally dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as she held Kilah.
In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Craig Principe showed the jury a picture of a smiling Kilah before her injuries. “It only takes an instant for things to change forever,” he said. “It only took an instant for the defendant’s temper to flare and use her like a battering ram and slam her skull into a Sheetrock wall.”
Prosecutor said two strands of Kilah’s hair were retrieved from the wall. Principe said doctors compared Kilah’s brain injuries to that of a child ejected from a car crash.
Prosecutor Reeves played a video, taken before the injuries, of a laughing Kilah riding a toy bike in a backyard. She said Kilah will never learn how to ride a bike, go to the prom or decide what she wants to do with her life.
“That sound, of bubbly laughter, he took her voice,” Reeves said. “The sound she makes now is a continued low moan. It sounds kind of like an animal’s. You don’t want to look at it. She never deserved this. No child deserves this.” Observer researcher Maria David contributed.