LE MARS — Items needed to keep Sterling Koehn alive and healthy were found in the Alta Vista apartment where he lived with his parents and older sister, according to sheriff’s investigators.
Sterling was found dead in a maggot-infested swing seat Aug. 30, 2017. An autopsy determined he died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection from diaper rash, according to prosecutors in the trial of his mother, 21-year-old Cheyanne Harris.
Harris is charged with murder and child endangerment causing death, and testimony began Wednesday in the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars, where the trial had been moved on a venue change.
Prosecutor Coleman McAllister told jurors it wasn’t a case of a family that didn’t have the resources or the parental experience to care for a baby.
“Evidence in this case will show Sterling suffered in the last hours and days before his death,” McAllister said. He said the baby had been left “unloved, uncared for, unaided by his mother” who was in the next room.
Defense attorney Nichole Watt said Harris isn’t a monster.
“The monster in this case is mental health. The monster in this case is depression,” Watt told jurors.
Harris’ attorneys filed notification they may use a diminished responsibility defense and have scheduled witnesses that include a psychologist and an expert in postpartum depression.
Chickasaw County sheriff’s deputies said they found everything needed to care for the child inside the small apartment.
Deputy Jason Rosol told jurors he found new diapers, bundled in rubber bands as if received as a gift, in the same room where Sterling died in the urine-soaked swing wearing a diaper that hadn’t been changed in more than a week. A tube of baby ointment, which could be used to treat diaper rash, was also found in the room, Rosol said.
A baby bottle with milk or formula starting to separate was found near the swing, he said.
And, in a kitchen cupboard over the sink, there were two cans of formula.
“The blue Similac up front, I found that to be about three-quarters full, and then the orange one that’s in the back is kind of an off-label for sensitivity, that was more like a third full,” Rosol said.
Rosol said he also found a Hy-Vee supermarket receipt in Harris’ purse showing $123.53 worth of purchases Aug. 26, 2017, four days before the 911 call.
The couple’s almost 2-year-old daughter appeared healthy, according to witnesses at the apartment.
Chief Deputy Reed Palo said he talked briefly with Harris at the scene, and she told him she had fed the baby about 4 ounces the prior night. She said she then fed the daughter and did chores.
He said Harris also told him Sterling hadn’t been to the hospital for a checkup since he was born, and she told him she had been on medication for postpartum depression after her daughter was born but quit taking it because it made her sick.
Palo said Harris was crying but was able to answer questions and didn’t appear to be under the influence of drugs.
Harris left the courtroom sobbing as prosecutors showed jurors photos of the lifeless child in a swing seat. Her tears triggered a break in her trial.
Otherwise, she remained quiet. She kept her head down and in her hands most of the time, and at one point had to be asked to remove her hand so a witness could identify her.
The state’s first witnesses included a nurse who was first on the scene following the 911 call.
Toni Friedrich told jurors she had expected to perform CPR but found the baby was beyond help.
Several witnesses recounted how the apartment smelled, odors of urine and feces and decay that only got worse when they entered the back bedroom.
“In that room, it was like you didn’t want to breathe,” Palo said.
They also talked about finding Sterling’s blanket and swing seat drenched in urine, and noticing maggots in the clothing and on the child and small flies that took to the air when disturbed.
The witnesses described the parents as unemotional.
“There were no tears, there was no emotion,” said Tina Shatek, a mail carrier with first-responder training who followed Friedrich into the apartment. “She should have been crying and screaming and upset.”
She said Harris told her the child was fine when she fed him at 9:30 p.m. the night before. Shatek said she asked Harris if she meant 9:30 “that morning” because a 4-month-old would need to be fed sooner than the night before. Harris didn’t respond, Shatek said.
After law enforcement arrived, Shatek returned to her postal rounds. She said she had to throw up.
“It was so sad. Had I known that child was there, all that time, every day I drove by, I could have done something. And that day, I was just too late,” Shatek said.