Le Mars jury finds mother guilty of first-degree murder in infant’s death
LE MARS -- Cheyanne Renee Harris stood quietly Wednesday afternoon as a Plymouth County jury found her guilty in the neglect death of her 4-month-old son in 2017.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours and submitted two questions to the court before arriving at their verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death.
Harris -- who earlier averted her eyes and wept when prosecutors showed photos of her son, Sterling Koehn, dead in a maggot-filled diaper in their Alta Vista apartment during the trial -- showed no emotion.
As with most of the trial, no other relatives for Sterling were in the courtroom during the verdict. His father, 29-year-old Zachary Koehn, was convicted of the same charges last year and is in prison.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Coleman McAllister, who prosecuted both cases with the help of Assistant AG Denise Timmins, said he was pleased with the verdict.
“For me, it’s a relief. We’ve been working on this case for quite awhile. I felt a responsibility to be a voice for Sterling and seek justice for him,” McAllister said.
Prosecutors said the case was emotional, and keeping those emotions in check was difficult.
First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence without parole. The child endangerment charge is punishable by up to 50 years, but the charge will likely be rolled into the more serious murder charge.
Sentencing has tentatively been set for Feb. 19.
Although Sterling died in Chickasaw County, the trial was moved to Le Mars because of pretrial publicity. Testimony and evidence, which sometimes caused jurors to turn away from photos or dab at tears, lasted four days with final summations Wednesday morning.
Jurors had asked to review Harris’ recorded interview with Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Chris Callaway and questioned definitions of “malice” and “intent” before returning a verdict.
Volunteer first responders found Sterling dead in a swing seat in a back bedroom Aug. 30, 2017, after Zachary Koehn called 911.
Insects in Sterling’s diaper showed he hadn’t been changed, bathed or picked up in nine to 14 days, an entomologist testified. Experts estimated the baby died half a day to a day before the 911 call.
Doctors determined Sterling died of dehydration, malnutrition and infection from untreated diaper rash that had worked its way up the child’s chest and back.
Harris quietly shook her head and mouthed something under hear breath as Timmins recounted some of the testimony Wednesday.
Timmins said Harris didn’t want anything to do with Sterling because she was tired of hearing him cry and blamed him for the family’s problems. Evidence showed Koehn also questioned if he was the father -- DNA tests later proved he was -- and Timmins said Harris wanted to please Koehn.
Harris placed Sterling in the swing, faced him toward a wall and left him there, closing the door. That set of a chain of events that eventually led to the baby’s death, Timmins said.
“She let her blessing die a slow, and painful and unnecessary death,” Timmins said. “She heard him scream, and she did nothing. How many days did he cry?”
Harris knew Koehn wasn’t caring for the child, Timmins said. She noted the apartment had baby formula and other items to care for Sterling, who ultimately died in a bedroom just feet away from new, unused diapers. The couple’s daughter, nearly 2 years old at the time, was well nourished, she said.
Harris was charged with murder under the felony murder theory, so jurors had to find Sterling died while Harris was committing the crime of child endangerment, with malice and under conditions showing extreme indifference to human life.
Defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker admitted the state had proved its case for a conviction on the child endangerment charge. But he fought the murder charge, saying there was no evidence of malice.
Hawbaker said that less that a week before Sterling’s death, Harris was arranging to have her mother look after the children for the upcoming weekend.
“She was ill. That’s delusion,” Hawbaker told jurors. He said looking back, she now realizes she messed up.
A clinical psychologist for the defense had testified Harris suffered from severe methamphetamine abuse, massive depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder which would have hindered her parental abilities.
But a psychiatrist for the prosecution said the depression wasn’t so severe because it didn’t carry over to other aspects of Harris’ life, and the facts didn’t show she was incapable of caring for Sterling.
Koehn was found guilty of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death in November following 37 minutes of jury deliberations and was sentenced to life in prison.