DES MOINES, Iowa – A jury on Wednesday found an Iowa mother guilty of murder in the death of her infant son, whose body was found in a maggot-infested diaper.
Cheyanne Harris, 21, was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death after her son, Sterling Koehn, died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection. The baby’s father, Zachary Koehn, 29, was convicted in November of the same charges.
Plymouth County jurors returned the verdict after more than five hours of deliberations. Harris will later be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sterling was found dead on a mechanical swing, weighing less than seven pounds, in the couple’s apartment in Alta Vista, a small city in northeast Iowa. Feces in his diaper ate through his skin, allowing E. coli bacteria to enter his bloodstream and cause infection.
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. Harris cried in court after prosecutors showed the jury crime scene photographs.
At the beginning of the trial, a 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,” Nichole Watt said.
At trial, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Chris Callaway testified Harris questioned her maternal care during an interview. She told the agent of Sterling: “I should have checked on him more,” the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.
A babysitter testified the infant had a raw diaper rash and seemed underweight, but ate hungrily, the Courier reported. The first time she babysat, Harris left then-3-month-old Sterling and a 2-year-old girl with her for 17 hours, she told the jury.
The infant’s father called 911 on Aug. 30, 2017, and lied to the dispatcher when he suggested Sterling had 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.
The case was not one of the parents lacking adequate resources to care for their children, prosecutors have 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.
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 said the case facts “go far beyond neglect.”
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