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Harris gets life sentence for murder of her son

By Bob Steenson, 

An Alta Vista woman convicted earlier this month of murder in the death of her son has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That punishment is mandatory in Iowa in the case of first-degree murder, and Judge Richard Stochl made it official Tuesday morning, pronouncing the sentence on Cheyanne Harris in Chickasaw County District Court in New Hampton.

Harris did not make any comments in court before her sentence was announced.

Cheyanne Harris
Cheyanne Harris

Harris, age 21, was convicted on Feb. 6 of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death, for the death of her 4-month-old son, Sterling Koehn, whose body was found Aug. 30, 2017, in an apartment in Alta Vista.

State officials testified at the trial that the boy died of malnutrition, dehydration and an E. coli infection caused by severe diaper rash. Experts said the evidence showed the boy’s diaper had not been changed in one to two weeks before he died.

After the conviction, Harris’ attorneys filed a motion asking the judge to order a new trial or to overturn the jury’s verdict, arguing that the evidence proved Harris was guilty of child endangerment but not first-degree murder.

Usually to prove first-degree murder, the prosecution needs to prove the defendant maliciously intended to kill the victim. Under Iowa’s felony-murder rule, if the victim’s death occurred while the offender was committing certain other felonies, the state can seek a first-degree murder conviction, even if the death was not directly intended.

In this case, the charge of child endangerment resulting in death is the felony that allowed the state to seek the first-degree murder conviction.

“All of the evidence in this case shows only a willful deprivation of care,” wrote defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker in the motion. “There was no evidence presented showing the intentional use of force, torture or cruelty” resulting in bodily harm, that is required for a conviction of first-degree murder under Iowa’s felony-murder rule.

The prosecution resisted the defense motion, arguing, “The state clearly showed that by defendant’s intentional acts of placing her child in a baby swing in a hot, dark room and subsequently leaving that child to never be fed, hydrated or moved for at least 10-14 days she was using unreasonable torture or cruelty which resulted in bodily injury to S.K.

“The defendant was aware the child needed assistance,” wrote Denise A Timmins, Iowa assistant attorney general. “Instead of providing her child the help he needed to survive, the defendant instead chose to put a heavy blanket over the window to dampen sound and smell, place air fresheners underneath the swing to cover up the smell, and to continue her life as if nothing was wrong in the back room.

“S.K. suffering for the length of time he did at the hands of his mother is nothing but tortuous and cruel,” Timmins wrote in the state’s response.

Motions for a new trial or for an arrest of judgment are routine by the defense after a criminal conviction, and rarely granted by the trial court judge.

Stochl said Tuesday there was sufficient evidence to back the jury’s decision and he denied the defense motion.

The baby’s father, Zachary Koehn, is also serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after having been convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death in a trial last fall.

Harris’ trial had been held in Plymouth County on a change of venue from Chickasaw County.