LE MARS – The defense is scheduled to begin presenting its case Tuesday in the trial of an Alta Vista mother charged in the death of her infant son. Their case may center on whether the young mom neglected her son due to postpartum depression.
Cheyanne Harris, 21, is charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. If convicted as charged, she faces life behind bars. Prosecutors said she failed to provide food and care for 4-month-old Sterling Koehn, who was found dead in a maggot-infested diaper on Aug. 30, 2017.
Harris’s attorneys said postpartum depression played a role in the death. The defense has indicated it may call an Ames psychologist and an Iowa City expert on postpartum depression as witnesses.
Earlier in Harris’ trial — and in the 2018 trial for the child’s father, Zachary Koehn — evidence included testimony that Harris had been prescribed anti-depressants after the birth of the couple’s daughter, which was almost two years before Sterling’s death.
Harris told an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation that she took the medication following her daughter’s birth, but she quit after about a week because it made her nauseous, and she threw up. During Koehn’s trial, the medication was identified as Lexapro, which is used to treat anxiety.
She told the agent she wasn’t on medication around the time of Sterling’s death.
One of the experts tapped to testify for Harris’ defense is Michael O’Hara, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in postpartum depression.
Koehn’s defense team also used O’Hara during his 2018 trial, but at that time, he hadn’t examined Harris. O’Hara’s testimony in Koehn’s trial was based on a review of documents and other material surrounding the case, and he concluded that Harris likely suffered from depression. Since then, O’Hara has apparently had an opportunity to examine Harris.
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Harris’ murder trial began last week at the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars, where it was moved on a change of venue. A jury of 10 men and four women are hearing the case. Court TV is filming the trial to be used in a future broadcast.
On Friday, defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker notified the court that the defense wants to call Koehn, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder in the child’s death, as a witness.
Koehn has appealed his conviction and may invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which would preclude his testimony.
Judge Richard Stochl issued an order to allow Koehn, who was recently assigned to the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison, to communicate with his appellate attorney to discuss his options.
During Koehn’s trial in the fall of 2018, his attorneys had subpoenaed Harris to testify for the defense, and Harris took the Fifth and didn’t testify.
During testimony last week, jurors heard that Harris had told investigators that she was Sterling’s primary caretaker, and that she said she changed and fed the baby on Aug. 29, 2017, the day before he was found dead.
They also heard from a medical examiner and a forensic pathologist who said the maggots were evidence that Sterling’s diaper hadn’t been changed in nine to 14 days and that he died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection from a diaper rash that ruptured his skin and spread halfway up his back and chest.
Trial was on break today because of other hearings scheduled in Plymouth County.