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A cedar waxwing feeds on frozen berries in a tree on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls on Thursday.

Accused's mother testifies in baby death trial

LE MARS — Sterling Koehn’s maternal grandmother recalled their short time together as the murder trial of Sterling’s mother continued Thursday.

Prosecutors allege Cheyanne Harris, 21, failed to provide the care needed to keep the 4-month-old alive. He died of malnutrition, dehydration and a diaper rash infection and was found wearing a maggot-infested diaper in a swing seat in the family’s Alta Vista apartment Aug. 30, 2017.

Defense attorneys for Harris say postpartum depression played a role in the infant’s death.

Grandmother Brandy Harris struggled to hold pack her emotions as prosecutors asked her about photos she took of Sterling weeks and months before he died. She admitted she didn’t want to testify against her daughter and was in court because she had been subpoenaed. The judge ordered that she not be photographed.

Sterling was born ahead of schedule, and Cheyanne Harris gave birth in a friend’s house in May, the grandmother recalled. She lived a few blocks away at the time and went over to see the baby.

“I was freaking out because he was in a bathtub, just had been born there, and so I kind of wanted an ambulance,” Brandy Harris said. He was taken to a hospital and released a few days later with a clean bill of health. She took Sterling to his first doctor’s visit the following day because Cheyanne Harris was hemorrhaging.

At a baby shower after Sterling arrived, the family received blankets, toys, baby clothes and diapers arranged to look like a cake. A photo from the occasion showed Sterling asleep in a car seat.

“I think we got him about four or five times. ... That was based on pictures because I didn’t know any of this would be important, how many times we had him overnight,” Brandy Harris told jurors.

Sterling was a happy baby, Brandy Harris said. He wasn’t a loud crier, but he’d fuss when he needed something.

Brandy Harris said she had never been inside her daughter’s apartment because Zachary Koehn, the children’s father, didn’t get along with her side of the family.

“Zach felt the same way about us as we did about him,” she said.

The last time she looked after the children was around Aug. 5, 2017, when she took them to the Wapsie Days festival in Riceville.

“We went garage saling, put him in a stroller. It was nice,” she said. “I know I had them all during the day. I can’t recall if I had them overnight. ... I don’t have any pictures because we were busy doing things.”

She said he seemed healthy, although a little thin.

Drug use

Jurors also heard Cheyanne Harris used meth. Jason Clark, who had worked with Koehn and later developed a relationship with Cheyanne, said he smoked methamphetamine with the parents at their Alta Vista apartment, and he both sold and bought meth from Koehn.

Clark said he had been to the apartment two or three times for a total of four to five hours and never realized they had a baby. He said they would smoke meth in the master bedroom to be away from their daughter, who was almost 2 years old.

Cheyanne Harris admitted to using meth when interviewed by an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent, and a Department of Human Services child protection worker said Cheyanne Harris admitted to smoking meth about a week before Sterling’s death.

Baby sitter

Jennifer Schriever, a clerk at the town gas station, recounted meeting Cheyanne Harris and her daughter when the young couple moved into town months before the death.

Schriever lived nearby, and she recalled a July 2017 storm that knocked a large section of tree onto the apartment building where Cheyanne Harris and Koehn lived. Cheyanne Harris and her daughter were outside, and she was upset because Koehn was at work, she said. During the conversation, Cheyanne Harris mentioned she had a baby, apparently inside the apartment, and she remained outside for 20 to 30 minutes without a way to monitor the infant, Schriever said.

She said she later offered to baby-sit because Cheyanne Harris seemed like she needed to get out of the house. Cheyanne Harris seemed kind of sad, Schriever said.

The first time she baby-sat, it was a 17-hour stint in July 2017. Schriever said Sterling appeared to be light and tiny. She said he ate like a trooper and had a raw diaper rash, which she treated. Cheyanne Harris was organized with a notebook about how to care for the children and provided supplies, she said.

Schriever baby-sat both children a second time in late July. She said Sterling was still light but seemed a little heavier. The rash was better, she said. After about 16 hours, she saw Cheyanne Harris and Koehn return to the apartment building, and Harris texted she would be over soon to get the kids, she just needed a minute.

But Harris didn’t arrive, and after awhile the daughter began to get fussy, so Schriever took the children and headed over to the apartment where Cheyanne Harris answered the door.

Cheyanne Harris huffed and rolled her eyes like she wasn’t ready to take the children back, Schriever said.

Schriever said she didn’t have much contact with the children after that. Then on Aug. 30, 2017, she saw Koehn outside smoking a cigarette, and asked him what was wrong. She said Koehn told her the baby had died, and he didn’t know what to do. She said she told him to put out the cigarette and call 911.

The couple then had her look after Leo, the family dog, while medics and deputies came to the apartment. A few days after Sterling’s death, Schriever returned Leo, and they went to a nearby park to talk.

“At some point she (Cheyanne Harris) looked at me and Zach and said it seems like everyone is pointing a finger at me. And I agreed. ... At that time she kind of winged her arm over to Zach and said, ‘I told you we should have taken (the daughter) and Leo and ran,’” Schriever said.

“I didn’t know how to respond to that,” she said.

Trial for Cheyanne Harris was moved to the Plymouth County Courthouse in La Mars on a change of venue.

Koehn was convicted of murder and child endangerment during a trial in the fall of 2018.

Iowa GOP broadens attack on abortion

DES MOINES — More than half of the Republican-dominated Iowa Senate has quickly signed on to a constitutional amendment aimed at weakening the state court system’s power to review abortion restrictions, just days after an Iowa judge overturned what would have been the nation’s broadest such limit.

The amendment would expressly state that the Iowa Constitution “does not secure or protect a right to abortion.” Spurred by last week’s legal defeat of a measure seeking to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, it’s a brash attempt at nullifying Iowa Supreme Court precedent declaring that women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies.

Several other conservative states have deployed the tactic of a constitutional amendment, which in Iowa would have to twice clear both chambers of the Legislature before going to voters for ratification.

The move lays the groundwork to ban abortions altogether in Iowa should the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that established a woman’s legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

“When the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, with a constitutional amendment the people and their elected representatives would be able to again decide the issue rather than the state courts in Iowa,” said Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, a Washington-based pro-life law firm and advocacy group.

Voters in Alabama and West Virginia passed similar constitutional amendments in November. Tennessee passed one in 2014.

At the root of much of the state activity is the belief that Roe could be overturned soon. Such a decision would return the regulation of abortion to the states the belief is that those with constitutional amendments declaring no right to an abortion exists under the state constitution would have a better chance of abortion limiting legislation surviving legal challenges.

“States hostile to reproductive rights are working to enshrine in the constitution or state statutes something that would come into effect if the federal right is undercut or overturned,” said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel of state policy for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based nonprofit legal advocacy group.

Heidi Sieck, CEO of #VoteProChoice, a national political campaign that works to elect pro-choice candidates, said even if the Roe fight is lost in the short term, many women passionate about women’s rights have been compelled to run for office and are winning.

“Our pro-choice voters are going to rise up en masse. Women are not going back to a pre-Roe environment. They’re just not,” she said.

The proposed Iowa amendment was introduced Jan. 24 by Republican Sen. Jake Chapman, two days after a state court judge struck down yet another attempt by the Legislature to limit abortion. It has the backing of 29 out of 50 senators.

The legislation came days after Judge Michael Huppert’s ruling striking down as unconstitutional the “fetal heartbeat” law that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May. The measure would have outlawed abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Huppert concluded that the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in a June 2018 ruling that women have a fundamental right to an abortion under the Iowa Constitution and the heartbeat law violated that precedent.

In that ruling the court found unconstitutional a law passed by the Legislature and signed by former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, in April 2017. It required women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours before a doctor could perform the procedure.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote the majority opinion saying the state’s capacity to legislate “pursuant to its own moral scruples is necessarily curbed by the constitution.”

It is that type of sweeping conclusion that infuriates socially conservative lawmakers and organizations.

“The notion that a woman has a right to an abortion under Iowa’s constitution gravely misinterprets our state’s constitution,” Chapman said.

He accused the court of creating a right that doesn’t exist in the state constitution.

The amendment “puts the responsibility back onto the legislative body. We are the ones who are going to make the determination of what should or should not be,” he said.

The heartbeat bill and the 72-hour waiting period law were among several attempts to restrict abortion since Republicans took a majority of seats in the Iowa Legislature in the November 2016 election.