Feb. 27, 2014 @ 04:46 PM

A Union County jury found Josh Houser guilty of injuring his 3-year-old step-daughter on May 16, 2012.
Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace sentenced him to between 7 and a half and 10 years in prison. The jury ruled that the crime included aggravating factors because Kilah's injuries were cruel and heinous and because she was very young.
Jurors deliberated for most of Thursday. That morning the jury asked to review photos, notes and the hole in sheetrock that investigators said was the place Houser rammed Kilah's head.
Houser's family, which had been in court for the entire trial, wept quietly to themselves. Kirbi Davenport and Leslie Davenport, Kilah's mother and grandmother, rocked Kilah gently in their arms as the jury delivered its verdict.
"You have failed not only Kirbi and Kilah, but also yourself," Leslie Davenport said in a short statement to the court. "There is no doubt you are guilty. Kilah is the biggest piece of evidence of that."
As Wallace read the sentence, Houser's father buried his face in his hands and wept bitterly. He looked up only to watch his son be led away by deputies. Once out of his sight, his father sat, shaking with silent sobs.
Prosecution and defense attorneys rested their cases Wednesday.
“It only takes an instant to change a life forever,” Assistant District Attorney Craig Principe said, beginning the state’s closing arguments.
The state’s argument accuses Houser of scooping Kilah “and using her as a battering ram by throwing her headfirst into the wall,” Principe said.
To convict Houser of felony child abuse, the state must prove three things to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. First, that Kilah was left in Houser’s care. The defendant admitted he watched Kilah while her mother, Kirbi, went to work.
Second, that the victim was under age 16. Houser and members of Kilah’s family testified she was only three when she was injured.
Third, that Houser intentionally assaulted Kilah inflicting serious injuries that threatened her life or caused permanent damage. Prosecutors argue that he did both. The neurosurgeon who performed emergency surgery on Kilah said if he had not removed part of her skull to ease brain swelling, the child would have died.
“The proof of his guilt is overwhelming,” Principe said.
Houser was the only person present in the Covey Trail home the day Kilah sustained major head trauma. The doctor’s statements, one of Kilah’s hairs embedded in the broken sheetrock from the family’s home and inconsistencies in Houser’s statements point to his guilt, Principe said.
“The defense attorney wants you to enter a world of pure imagination where he makes the ‘anyone or anything but Josh Houser’ defense,” Principe said. “These injuries weren’t caused by her falling or a curtain rod hitting her or a fall off the couch.”
Houser’s attorney, Miles Helms, said Kilah’s injuries are horrible, but the state had not done a good enough job proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The state of North Carolina said in their opening statements that my client, in a fit of rage over child support and not being able to see his biological daughter, picked Kilah up to pile-drive her into a sheetrock wall,” Helms said.
Though Houser’s ex-girlfriend was cited several times in their argument, prosecutors did not produce her as a witness, Helms said.
Just one of a team of doctors who treated Kilah testified. Why not the others, he asked. Medical opinion can very from one physician to another, but only one opinion was given to the jury, Helms said.
Helms asked why the 911 operator testified he had not handled Houser’s 911 call properly? He asked why a Union County Sheriff’s deputy the first to arrive on the scene even though it was purely a medical call at that point.
EMS and emergency room staff testified being suspicious of Houser early, though there was no mention in their notes from the incident. If Kilah was thrown against the wall, Helms asked why there were no handprints on her body and why there was no sheetrock residue in her hair. Why did investigators interview Houser several times within a 24-hour period if not to hope he would confess and make their investigation easier, Helms said.
“It’s their burden of proof, folks,” Helms said. “They charged him. They wanted you to make a decision with a reasonable doubt. But where are these important witnesses?”
The hole in the sheetrock is more consistent with being caused by a fist instead of a child’s head, Helms argued. The prosecution’s only real connection between Kilah and the hole in the wall were from two of the girl’s hairs.  Helms argued that those hairs could have already been on Houser’s hand when he punched the bedroom wall in frustration.
Doctors compared Kilah’s brain injury to that of someone who fell from a great height.
Holding a board roughly the same height as Kilah at the time of the injury, Helms said falling 33 inches seems unlikely to cause major injury. Then Helms fetched a ladder and climbed almost to the top.
“But if I were to climb to the top and fall backwards with nothing to protect my head, that would cause serious injury,” Helms said. “It’s all subjective.”
Assistant District Attorney Anne Reeves showed the jury photos from Kilah’s MRI.
“Is this subjective?” she said, holding an image of Kilah’s brain after her injury.
Reeves noted Helms’ mention that paramedics reported no obvious injury to Kilah on May 16, 2012 other than a dog bite and a cut to her chin.
“The paramedics didn’t see a mark on her? They don’t have a CT scanner or an MRI machine on the ambulance,” Reeves said. “They didn’t see the swelling in her head and face? Maybe it’s because they were focused on clearing the blood and vomit from her lungs so she could breathe.”
Again, she pointed to the Kilah’s MRIs and repeated doctors’ testimony that five days after her injury, Kilah’s brain was swollen and inch and a half above the hole doctors had to make in her head to ease the pressure.
“The demonstration we just had to witness, the one with the defense attorney climbing up a ladder, that a little girl could be running and hit her head and that cause this much damage is outlandish,” Reeves said. “He must have thought you were fools to believe that.”
Some parents, particularly protective “momma bears”, might blame Kirbi for her daughter’s injury, Reeves said. Each of her three children is by a different man. She married Houser after only two months of dating. Houser had recently ended a relationship with the mother of his child before moving into Kirbi’s parents’ home.
“This is not a typical story. This isn’t a ‘Modern Family’ episode,” Reeves said. “It’s the closest some of you will come to a Jerry Springer episode.”
Houser quit his job instead of paying child support, allowing Kirbi, while pregnant with his child, to make the household income grooming dogs, Reeves said. He had little experience caring for children, so being left with a 3-year-old for days without relief began to eat away at Houser, Reeves said.
“By May 16, he’d had enough,” she said. “He would have left but he didn’t have enough gas money to go anywhere.”
And then Kilah soiled herself, even though she was potty trained.
“When he picked her up and saw that she pissed herself, it was the last straw,” Reeves said. “It didn’t happen in a vacuum. He’s thought about all the choices he’d made in his life.”
Houser took something from Kilah, Reeves said. She played a short video clip of Kilah before her injury, playing with her toys and laughing. She pointed to Kilah as she is today, laying limply in Kirbi’s arms in the audience.
“He took her voice. That sound she makes now in the courtroom, it sounds kind of like an animal,” Reeves said.
It is a fate Kilah did not deserve, she said.
“He took all of that away from her,” Reeves said, pointing to Houser. “She never deserved it. You have the ability to give him what he deserves. Find him guilty.”