An Iowa mother stands accused of killing her maggot-infested infant. Her attorney says it's not murder.
The emergency medical technician was at home when she received the call of an infant in distress in Alta Vista, a small city in northeast Iowa.
Rushing to the scene, the first responder thought she would need to perform CPR or another emergency procedure to assist a child. Instead, she found 4-month-old Sterling Koehn dead in a swing that faced a wall, his fists clenched together, a prosecutor said.
"He was cold to the touch," Assistant Iowa Attorney General Coleman McAllister said Wednesday as part of opening statements in the trial of the boy's mother, Cheyanne Harris. "And she knew then that there was nothing she could do to save Sterling."
Harris, 21, was charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death after Sterling died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection. The baby's father, Zachary Koehn, 29, was found guilty of those charges in November.
Nichole Watt, a Waterloo public defender representing Harris, said while Sterling's death is a tragedy, it was not a planned murder. Harris suffered from postpartum depression and self-medicated, but she had no desire to harm her son, she said.
"The monster, in this case, is mental health," Watt said, telling jurors they would not hear evidence of typical child abuse injuries, such as broken bones or bruises. "You're not going to hear any evidence that she's evil; that's because she's not evil."
Sterling was found dead on a mechanical swing, weighing less than seven pounds, an ounce more than when he was born. Feces in his diaper ate through his skin, allowing E. coli bacteria to enter his bloodstream and cause infection, authorities said.
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The hot room he was in attracted flies, which laid eggs that hatched into maggots while Sterling was alive; they crawled in his clothes and his diaper for days, prosecutors said. A forensic entomologist who examined insects on Sterling's body concluded the baby had been in his swing for nine to 14 days in the same diaper.
Autopsy photographs appeared to show the boy — wearing camouflage pants and a shirt with a cartoon cow above the words "let's play" — bleeding from the mouth.
The infant's father called 911 on Aug. 30, 2017, and lied to the dispatcher when he suggested Sterling died of sudden infant death syndrome, prosecutors said. Chickasaw County sheriff's deputies found the boy's body in a bedroom separate from where Koehn, Harris and their older child slept.
Photographing the room, a deputy saw scuttle flies as he moved a blanket off Sterling's body, McAllister said. The deputy began preserving evidence, the prosecutor said, because by then, "little Sterling Koehn’s body was a crime scene."
As Sterling was left in the swing, the couple continued to clothe and feed their healthy 2-year-old daughter, McAllister said. Harris, a stay-at-home mom, was in the next room as Sterling died slowly, prosecutors said.
The state medical examiner determined the boy's death was a homicide; his cause of death was listed as failure to provide critical care. In charging documents, a deputy wrote that the case facts "go far beyond neglect."
"She failed little Sterling," McAllister said.
The case was not one of the parents lacking adequate resources to care for their children, prosecutors said. Koehn made $45,000 a year and had access to health insurance as a truck driver who hauled chickens from Wisconsin to Charles City, Iowa.
Harris' defender told jurors Wednesday at the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars that they may wonder: "What kind of monster could do something like this?" But she said Harris, who reported last using meth weeks before the death, had no ill will toward Sterling.
She began crying after prosecutors showed the jury crime scene photographs.
Harris was expected to use intoxication or diminished responsibility as a defense, indicating in court records an Ames psychologist may serve as a witness.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Harris will be sentenced to life in prison. The boy's father, convicted by a Henry County jury, is serving his life term at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Dodge.
When he took the stand in his own defense, Koehn blamed Harris for the baby's death, saying he "put his trust in the wrong person." But under cross-examination from the prosecution, Koehn admitted he took better care of his dog than he did Sterling.
Harris' trial was moved from Chickasaw County to Plymouth County because of pretrial publicity. Video of the proceedings was being streamed live at lawandcrime.com.
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