From time to time, Suffer the Little Children will feature a story from the less recent past. Years may have gone by, but these children still deserve to be remembered and their stories told. These posts can be found under the “Forget Me Not” tag.
Today’s Forget Me Not story is one I’m covering in two parts over episodes 45 and 46 of Suffer the Little Children Podcast. Episode 45 was released yesterday, and in episode 46, which comes out on Wednesday, January 20, you will hear my conversation with this precious little boy’s grandma.
This is a story of a little boy who was failed by not only child protective services, but also the criminal justice system — and, many believe, by his own mother.
Jaheem Samir Harris was born in Waterloo, Iowa on November 23, 2012 to 20-year-old Danielle Nicole Harris and 18-year-old Corion Jamal Pursley. Danielle and Corion were never in a relationship, but they’d known each other a while, as Corion’s mother dated a man whose son was the father of Danielle’s older son. Jaheem was Danielle’s third child, her oldest being a girl. Her second, Jaheem’s older brother, had lived with his father essentially from birth.
Corion found out Jaheem was his son about three months after the baby was born, and from then on, Corion and his family were head over heels with the perfectly angelic baby boy they called Jahkey, Jaja, Little Man, and any number of other adorable nicknames.
Corion’s mother, whose legal name is Ruthie Clay but who goes by her middle and maiden names, Shay Caston, was particularly enamored with her tiny grandson. While Danielle worked, Shay, who was on disability due to epilepsy, babysat, and she quickly became close with little Jaheem.
Danielle’s birthday was June 20, but in 2013, she evidently had bigger plans than celebrating for a single day. She asked Shay if she could keep six-month-old Jaheem for the entire month of June, to which Shay happily agreed. Partway into the month, however, Shay’s doctor informed her that due to her epilepsy, she had to be admitted to the hospital for five to seven days, so she reluctantly called Danielle and told her she would have to pick up her son.
Danielle flat-out refused and hung up the phone.
Shay was surprised shortly after that by a phone call from Danielle’s mother, who was upset that Shay could no longer keep Jaheem for the full month. Ultimately, Danielle’s cousin picked up the baby and took him to Danielle’s mom to keep for the rest of the month.
Shay, who had put off her hospital stay multiple times, was admitted, but after her discharge several days later, Danielle refused to let her see Jaheem for two to three months. When she finally allowed Shay back into the baby’s life, Jaheem began spending more time with his grandma than he did with his mother, and eventually, he began living with Shay full time. By then, Danielle was pregnant with her fourth baby, another boy. Shay even took Jaheem to the hospital to meet his baby brother.
Although Jaheem lived with Shay, Danielle was the one receiving benefits and food stamps for the baby, and she provided none of those benefits for her son. Still, Jaheem got everything he needed. Between Shay, her family, and Corion’s various girlfriends, Jaheem never went without a meal, diapers, or anything else he needed, and he was always outfitted in the nicest clothing, including baby Air Jordans. When Shay found out that Jaheem hadn’t been vaccinated since he was in the hospital just after his birth, she took him to the doctor and got him caught up on his inoculations. Even though she was on disability and at less than peak health, Shay made Jaheem a priority. She told me, “I went without for Jaheem.”
On November 14, 2013, Corion’s best friend, 18-year-old Dae’Quan Campbell, better known to those who loved him as Bubba, was shot to death behind the wheel of his car. Bubba’s death devastated Corion and his family, but despite the tragedy, they still threw a small birthday party at Shay’s house for one-year-old Jaheem, who was a happy, healthy, well-behaved, handsome little boy who absolutely loved music.
When Jaheem was with his mother, Shay said, she witnessed some disturbing behavior on Danielle’s part. Danielle, Shay said, called Jaheem “best friend,” but she would slap him across the face, trip him for her own amusement, and even throw water on him. Shay made multiple reports to the Black Hawk County Department of Human Services, who told her that in order for the agency to become involved, she would have to put Jaheem into foster care, which, of course, was out of the question for the family who loved and wanted this little boy. Instead, they allowed things to go on as they were, with Jaheem living with his grandma and his mother receiving the financial aid intended to benefit him.
Jaheem’s second birthday party was also held at Shay’s house, and she fondly remembers how happy he was to be surrounded by family. Even Danielle was there, although she hovered around the fringes rather than involving herself in the celebration.
Shay tried to insist that Jaheem call her “Granny,” but the little boy had his mind made up, and there was no deterring him from calling the grandmother who raised him “Mama.”
Even before he was old enough to go to school, Jaheem would get up early with Shay’s two high school-aged daughters as if he was also getting ready for school. Shay’s doctor helped her arrange for Jaheem to attend Head Start, which is a locally operated, federally funded child development program for three-to-five-year-old children from low income families. According to the Educate Iowa website, “The program provides services to promote academic, social and emotional support, as well as providing social, health, and nutrition services.”
Jaheem loved going to school, and his teachers adored him. The photos you’ll see of Jaheem in the Facebook album I created for this episode will paint a picture for you of a little boy who was clearly loved, healthy, happy, and well cared for.
Then, in October of 2016, the month before Jaheem turned four, everything fell apart.
On October 17, 2016, Corion attended a child support court hearing. At the time, he was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Jaheem, who was still attending Head Start, was living with him. However, Danielle was still receiving the benefits intended to provide for Jaheem. Because of this, Corion rightfully didn’t feel he should be the one paying child support, which was the reason for the court hearing.
Somehow, at the end of the hearing, rather than ordering Danielle to pay child support or have the benefits switched, the judge instead allowed Danielle to take Jaheem home with her.
Evidently, when Danielle arrived home with Jaheem, her boyfriend, then-21-year-old Walter Cordell Williams, was none too happy about having yet another mouth to feed. In addition to Danielle and Walter, also living with them were Jaheem’s older sister and younger brother, and Danielle and Walter also shared two young daughters. If you’re keeping score, that meant Danielle was on child #6. Her daughters with Walter were the only two of her children who had the same father.
Walter was apparently furious about Jaheem joining the growing brood and took his frustration out on Danielle with his fists. The same day, Walter was charged with domestic abuse assault, a simple misdemeanor, and a No Contact Order against him was issued on behalf of Danielle Harris.
This wasn’t Walter’s first rodeo. He had been arrested a number of times previously on charges of harassing a public officer, traffic violations, interference with official acts, disorderly conduct by fighting or violent behavior, assault on a peace officer, marijuana possession, eluding, and probation violations. That was nothing, as it turned out, even considering his domestic violence arrest, compared to what he would prove himself capable of.
The next time Corion and his mother saw Jaheem was at Christmas of 2016, when they brought a few presents to Danielle’s mother’s house for him and saw him for a grand total of 15 minutes. There was a mountain of gifts waiting at home for him from various friends and family members, but Jaheem never got to open those presents. Danielle never answered Shay’s calls or texts after that.
Corion has been in trouble off and on with law for various offenses over the years, including crimes such as theft, burglary, carrying weapons, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, traffic offenses, assault, and probation violations. He had most recently been released from prison in July of 2015. In early 2016, by then age 22, Corion went back to prison, at which time Danielle reached out to Shay, asking her to provide some things for Jaheem. Shay told Danielle she wouldn’t be providing anything as long as Danielle continued refusing to allow the family to see Jaheem, to which Danielle replied that she would never see Jaheem again.
Unfortunately, that would turn out to be true.
At about 11:38 PM on Saturday, July 8, 2017, fire department paramedics were called to a townhouse at 1113 West Mullan Avenue in Waterloo, Iowa on a report of a child possibly drowning in a bathtub. When they arrived, first responders found four-year-old Jaheem Harris unresponsive in a bed upstairs, wearing pants and underwear. The 911 caller, Walter Cordell Williams, was performing some pathetic semblance of CPR on the little boy, but paramedics took over, moving Jaheem from the bed to the floor to resume resuscitation efforts.
Jaheem, his clothing, and the bed he was found in were all perfectly dry. So was the bathroom, including the bathtub itself. In addition, paramedics were startled to note that Jaheem’s little body was covered with extensive bruising. The paramedics attached a defibrillator to Jaheem’s chest, but they couldn’t use it; Jaheem had no heartbeat and therefore “no shockable rhythm.”
Waterloo Police arrived while fire department paramedics were working on Jaheem, who was rushed to Waterloo’s Covenant Medical Center just eight minutes away. It was too late, however, and just before midnight, Jaheem Samir Harris was pronounced dead at just four years, seven months, and fifteen days old.
Police were very interested in hearing what Walter Williams had to say, and he was taken in for questioning even as Jaheem was whisked to the hospital by ambulance. Walter told Waterloo police detectives that he was Danielle Harris’s ex-boyfriend and that he was tasked with watching her children — an 11-year-old girl, Jaheem, his two-year-old brother, and Walter and Danielle’s two very young girls — while she worked at night as a housekeeper at UnityPoint Health Allen Hospital, also in Waterloo. During the interview, which was recorded and subsequently played over a year later at trial, Walter admitted to investigators that he hit Jaheem, in his words, “all the time.”
It would later turn out that on the evening of Jaheem’s death, beginning at 11:24 PM, Walter called his sister, Ieasha Moore, who was studying to be a nurse, eight times and her fiance, Johnelle Collett, three times. When he called 911 at 11:33 PM, instead of giving his own name, Walter gave the dispatcher Johnelle’s name.
Walter was arrested in the early morning hours of July 9, 2017 and taken into custody on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court on June 12. He had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in the incident on October 17, 2016 during which he beat Danielle up for bringing Jaheem home, and he had been sentenced in April of 2017 to 30 days in jail with credit for time served and ordered to take domestic abuse classes, which, of course, he never bothered to attend. The review hearing he also didn’t attend on June 12 was in regard to those classes.
Police reports and court records show that Danielle and Walter had been at the townhouse together on Saturday, July 8 and that they had spoken on the phone throughout the day, as well. Some sources indicate that Walter was actually living with Danielle and the children at the time of Jaheem’s fatal injuries.
Police were aware of the no-contact order between Danielle and Walter, which wasn’t set to expire until 2022, and knew quite well that based on that order, Walter should have been nowhere near the West Mullan Avenue townhouse that day. They also knew that Danielle damn well knew it, but she had Walter babysitting anyway, using the excuse that she had no one but Walter to help her with the children.
No one but Walter. Had she forgotten about Jaheem’s paternal family altogether?
Let me just make this crystal clear. Danielle Harris knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Walter Cordell Williams should not be anywhere near her children. She knew this not only because he had beaten the daylights out of her, but also because a legal order was in place barring him from coming anywhere near her, including (and especially) into her home. Shay and the rest of Corion’s family had reached out to Danielle multiple times over the prior seven months, expressing the clear desire to see Jaheem, requests that Danielle summarily ignored, and she had the audacity to tell police she had no one else to help her with the kids. She also said on Facebook that she allowed Walter to babysit because she wanted to give him a chance to be a father to his two girls.
Unfortunately, the price for these special moments between Walter and his daughters was Jaheem’s life.
Walter was taken into the Black Hawk County Jail and held on a $1 million dollar bond. He had not yet been charged in connection with Jaheem’s death. On Sunday, the same day he was arrested, a magistrate amended the NCO to prohibit Walter from having contact with Danielle’s five children in addition to Danielle herself.
Jaheem’s battered little body was taken to the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office in Ankeny for an autopsy that was conducted on Monday, July 10, 2017. The results of the autopsy wouldn’t be released for several weeks, but those who had seen Jaheem at the hospital after he was pronounced dead had made it well known how badly bruised and beaten the four-year-old was. Jaheem’s death was ruled a homicide, the cause deemed to be blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen. The extent of Jaheem’s injuries wouldn’t be fully revealed until Walter’s eventual trial, and I promise you, you’re not ready for the damage that man caused that tiny boy who never hurt a soul.
Jaheem’s funeral was scheduled to take place on Monday, July 17, 2017. Prior to that, however, Danielle posted the following on Facebook: “Sorry But Not Sorry My Sons Dad Side Of The Family Will Not Be Attending His Funeral Or Service But I Will Make Sure His Dad Will Be There Front And Center❤️”
Her reasoning for barring Corion’s family from the funeral was because rumors had sprung up around Waterloo about Danielle’s fitness as a parent, for which Danielle blamed Corion’s mother, Shay. In a comment on Shay’s page, Danielle wrote, “…y’all swear y’all cared about Jaheem but yet none of y’all came to me as a grown adult and offered to help with funeral cost Nobody ever stepped up to do anything with his homecoming but y’all spreading rumors and being spiteful I don’t want bitter people there i want his day peaceful period.”
Others jumped in to defend Shay, saying there were assumptions being made and names thrown around without any facts being known and suggesting that instead of pettiness, the two sides should come together and communicate. Danielle was having none of it, firing back that Shay had made false reports to DHS about her and saying, “I’m over trying to clear my name from being bashed.”
To those questioning or criticizing Danielle’s judgment and parenting ability in Facebook comments, Danielle responded with thinly veiled threats, such as “…you don’t even know me at all I’m done face book talking where you at.”
In the end, Shay went to the mayor of Waterloo himself, who cleared the way for Jaheem’s paternal family to attend his funeral, which was just as peaceful and respectful as it should have been. Jaheem was laid to rest at Garden of Memories cemetery in Waterloo, the same cemetery where Corion’s best friend, Bubba, was buried.
Despite being in prison at the time, Corion was approved for an emergency furlough, so he was able to attend his son’s funeral.
The same day as Jaheem’s memorial service, Walter Williams was seen court at a quick hearing attended by two Waterloo PD investigators, as well as the county’s chief prosecutor, Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams, no relation to the defendant.
Between July 18 and September 15, 2017, multiple search warrants were filed in Black Hawk County Court in the case against Walter Williams, and on September 14, 23-year-old Walter, who was still held in the Black Hawk County Jail, was charged by prosecutors with first degree murder in the death of Jahim Harris. According to police, in addition to Walter’s own comments about hitting the children on earlier occasions, other children in the home, including Danielle’s oldest daughter and her pre-teen cousin, who had been adopted by Danielle’s mother, had reported hearing banging and cracking noises coming from the upstairs bedroom where Walter was with Jaheem and his little brother.
Walter admitted to violating the NCO, and he was immediately sentenced to 90 days in jail, to commence immediately, with credit given for time served. He was also ordered to pay court costs.
On September 22, prosecutors added a charge of child endangerment causing death for injuries Jaheem sustained in June and July. They alleged Walter acted in a way that put Jaheem’s health at risk or intentionally used unreasonable force, torture, or cruelty.
A few days later, on September 26, Walter was charged with two counts of violating a no contact order after he reached out to Danielle on multiple occasions. Investigators said he wrote letters on September 6 and September 23, addressed to a third party with instructions to hand them to Danielle. Then, on September 24, Walter called a third party, who used another phone to call Danielle so she could talk to Walter that way. That phone call, of course, was recorded, as most jail telephone communications are.
On September 29, Danielle Harris was arrested on a misdemeanor warrant for violation of an NCO. She was released from jail the same day.
Both Walter and Danielle were seen in court on October 16 for their charges relating to violating the NCO. Both pleaded guilty to their charges. Walter was sentenced to 180 days in jail, and his murder trial was tentatively scheduled to begin in November of 2017. For Danielle’s part, she also admitted to violating the NCO and was sentenced to 7 days in jail, which she had up to two months to serve. By this time, the surviving four children in her care had been removed from her custody and placed into state care, although her attorney, John Bishop, told reporters that Danielle had visitation with them.
On the one-year anniversary of Jaheem’s death, with the trial of Walter Williams now scheduled for October of 2018, family and loved ones gathered to remember Jaheem, spoke of their massive love for the little boy, and released balloons in his memory.
Shay Caston said on Facebook, “We are still struggling with the death of Jaheem Samir. He was a bright and beautiful baby boy. We remain to pray and put all of our faith in God for #Justice4JaheemSamir! We know the trial will be hard, but we have the faith to know God will make a way.”
She also said, “Jaheem spent most of his life with us. We miss him dearly. The pain is still present in our lives. I don’t want people to forget about him.”
Walter Williams’ trial on charges of murder and child endangerment causing death began with jury selection on Wednesday, July 24, 2018. The same day, during pretrial motions, prosecutors made their case for presenting evidence of other abuse allegations.
Walter’s defense attorney, Matthew Hoffey, asked Judge Kellyann Lekar to prevent the jury from hearing claims that Walter had struck Jaheem’s two-year-old brother and to bar photos of the younger boy’s bruises from evidence. Saying this information would inflame the jury, Mr. Hoffey said, “The biggest concern the defense has is clear proof of these alleged prior bad acts being committed by Mr. Williams… other than coincidence, I do not see any connection between these bruises on [the younger boy] and any acts of the defendant here.”
Prosecutor Brian Williams countered that evidence of the younger boy’s injuries, especially bruises on his chest, was highly pertinent to the case. “The photographs… are eerily similar to that of Jaheem.” Pointing out that the only children injured were the two boys and that the other children were girls, two of whom were Walter’s biological children, Mr. Williams added, “We would note for the court that these are two males, close in age, residing in this house, who are not the biological sons of the defendant.”
It seems the defense’s motion was granted, because there was no mention at trial of the younger boy’s injuries.
The trial itself began on the morning of Thursday, October 25, 2018. During his opening statement, Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams told the jury about the 911 call that summoned paramedics to 1113 West Mullan Avenue in Waterloo on July 8, 2017 on a report of a bathtub drowning, but that when paramedics arrived, they found Jaheem completely dry in an equally dry bed, partially dressed in dry clothing.
Mr. Williams said, “The bruising on this child was almost head to toe.”
In his opening statement, Mr. Williams explained how during the autopsy, the medical examiners found Jaheem had died from blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen, describing multiple lacerations on the little boy’s liver, a contusion on his right lung, blood in his stomach, and a pancreatic hemorrhage.
On day one of the trial, Jaheem’s mother, Danielle Harris, who was by then pregnant foir the seventh time, took the stand, recounting her last moments with Jaheem after he was pronounced dead and she was allowed to see him. She described her son lying on a hospital bed with a blanket pulled up to his neck, covering the worst of his bruises. Danielle told the court that she and Walter had not been dating at the time of Jaheem’s fatal injuries, but because they had two daughters together, Walter was tasked with caring for Jaheem, his 10-year-old sister, his younger brother, and their two infant daughters while she performed her job as a hospital housekeeper.
According to Danielle’s testimony, Jaheem was “his normal self,” “hyper and happy” when she left for work at about 1:00 PM on July 8, 2017.
With a straight face, Danielle told the court that she had no idea Walter was abusing Jaheem and that she hadn’t seen bruising on her son prior to his death.
Two children were also called to the stand that day: Jaheem’s 11-year-old sister and Danielle’s 13-year-old cousin, both of whom were present in the house when Jaheem was fatally injured.
The cousin told the court that she heard what sounded like repeated stomping coming from Danielle’s upstairs bedroom, where Walter was behind closed doors with Jaheem and his little brother. Of the noises, she explained, “It was constant.” She described hearing “boom noises” as well as screaming and crying coming from the upstairs bedroom.
Prosecutor Williams asked her, “Did you go upstairs?”
The girl replied, “No.”
When asked why, she replied, “I was scared.”
Later that day, the 13-year-old said, Walter took both Jaheem and his brother on a walk to the store, but when they returned soon afterward, Walter was holding Jaheem’s arm, helping him walk. Jaheem looked sad, the girl testified, and then the trio went back upstairs. At some point, she said, Walter came downstairs, grabbed a plastic bag from the kitchen and something from the fridge, and returned to the upstairs bedroom.
Police later found a package of frozen meat hidden in a laundry basket.
When the 13-year-old cousin eventually went upstairs, she saw Jaheem sitting on a bed, shirtless, eating a hot dog. She could tell the little boy was hurt, saying, “I seen bruises going across his chest.”
Both the cousin and Jaheem’s older sister testified they later saw a towel upstairs stained with vomit and blood.
On Friday, October 26, the court heard testimony from first responders to the scene, including lead paramedic, Justin Williams, again, no relation to the defendant. I’ll call him Justin to avoid confusion. Justin testified that when he arrived at the townhouse, Walter was performing substandard CPR on Jaheem on a bed upstairs, so paramedics moved Jaheem to the floor and took over chest compressions. Justin said he was confused at first, because he expected Jaheem’s body to be wet. “En route, dispatch told us it was a drowning, that he was found in the tub… but our patient was clothed from the waist down — sweatpants and underwear — and he was dry, the bed was dry, everything around him was dry.”
Walter and other adults at the house when first responders arrived told investigators that Jaheem had been left alone in the tub and was found about 20 minutes later, gasping. Walter said he performed CPR, found a pulse, and then called 911. It was revealed during trial that Walter had made no less than 11 calls prior to dialing 911.
Defense attorney Hoffey asked medics if improper CPR could possibly explain the bruises on Jaheem’s chest. Justin Williams responded that common CPR injuries included broken ribs and cracked sternums, but based on the poor excuse for CPR he saw Walter performing when he arrived, Jaheem’s injuries probably couldn’t have been explained by that due to lack of force exerted by Walter. “Most likely, from what I saw, it caused no injury.”
Justin told the court that calls involving injured children tend to stand out to paramedics among the thousands of calls they received, and when a child doesn’t survive, it can be devastating to EMTs. “These are career-ending calls for paramedics. You find a lifeless child, and you train constantly, every week, every month, at work we are training or studying, trying to be better at our jobs so we can bring a child back. To use all the training and put all that effort into it, for a lost cause, runs a lot of guys away from the ambulance.”
Another paramedic, Adam Wendling, explained to the jury why Walter giving Jaheem CPR on the bed was inadequate, saying, “If you have to do CPR, it’s better to do it on a rigid surface.” Mr. Wendling was the one who attached a defibrillator to Jaheem’s chest, but he told the court he didn’t use it because Jaheem didn’t have a “shockable rhythm.” He testified about the bruises he saw around Jaheem’s clavicle area, which other witnesses corroborated.
On the stand, firefighter Mike Spence said that after first responders were told Jaheem had drowned, he took a look in the bathroom. “While we were doing CPR, the child was dry, the bedding was dry, so on the way out, I thought I better look into the bathroom to see if I could see any water in the bathtub or on the floor… tub was dry, floor was dry. No water.”
The final witness of the day was Waterloo Police Department Crime Scene Investigator Jody Stratton, who narrated while Prosecutor Williams displayed gruesome photos on the projector screen of the bruises found on Jaheem’s body after he died. At the sight of the photos, family members gasped and burst into tears; one family member had to leave the courtroom, overcome with emotion.
One of the photos showed Jaheem’s buttocks covered in bruises. Others showed bruises on his arms, his collarbone, and his legs. One showed a lined pattern of bruises on his inner thigh that could have been caused by a blow from the package of frozen ribs found later buried in a laundry basket.
Brian Williams asked, “What you described for us here, significant bruising?”
CSI Stratton replied, “In my opinion, yes.”
Williams continued, “Both in terms of volume and severity?”
Stratton’s reply was the same: “Yes.”
With Stratton’s testimony, the court adjourned for the week.
Monday, October 29 was another brutal day in court for jurors, court officials, and audience members alike, as the day’s content included DNA evidence, phone records, police interview video, and autopsy results and photos.
Waterloo Police Officer John Koontz took the stand to describe questioning Walter Williams in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 9, 2017. When the video of the police interview was played for jurors, they saw Walter alternating between hunching in a chair and lying on the ground, mumbling answers to the officers’ questions.
During the interview, Walter told Officer Koontz that Jaheem had vomited in bed earlier that evening, so Walter cleaned up the bedding while Jaheem went back to sleep on the floor. Later, Walter said, he put Jaheem in the bathtub, leaving him alone in the water for about 20 minutes while he prepared a bottle for one of the other children.
When Koontz repeatedly asked why, when paramedics arrived, Jaheem was dry and partially clothed, Walter nonetheless refused to deviate from his story.
On the video, Koontz said to Walter, “Some of the things you’re saying don’t make sense.”
Walter replied stubbornly, “It’s the truth. I put him in the tub, and he was fine.”
He later repeated this claim, saying, “He was alive and well when I put him in the tub.”
Also on Monday, October 29, the court heard testimony from Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan Thompson, who performed Jaheem’s autopsy. Dr. Thompson stated his opinion to the court that Jaheem had died from blunt force trauma injuries to his chest and abdomen and that the manner of death was homicide.
Jaheem had suffered bruises on his forehead, both shoulders, both arms, his right elbow, both hands, his chest, both collarbones, both buttocks, both thighs, both legs, and his right knee, including “clustered bruises, multiple bruises in the same area, lots of bruises, and then the pattern bruises,” which “usually implies that the person was struck by some type of object.”
“He had a number of bruises which were concerning to me because they were in areas where accidental bruising should not be. It was concerning to me that this was some type of abuse case… to me, this goes beyond accidental.”
Dr. Thompson narrated to the jury as they viewed photos of Jaheem’s battered body. During the autopsy, the doctor noted, he found blood in Jaheem’s right and left chest cavities and his peritoneal cavity; hemorrhaging and three tears in Jaheem’s liver; and hemorrhaging in the pancreas, right lung, and adrenal gland. In his opinion, these injuries had occurred from zero to 48 hours before Jaheem’s death.
Defense attorney Matthew Hoffey asked Dr. Thompson if drowning could be ruled out as Jaheem’s cause of death, to which Dr. Thompson replied that it couldn’t, only because drowning was “a difficult diagnosis” to make. Mentioning the paramedics’ testimony that Jaheem was dry and clothed when they arrived, the medical examiner said, “In this case, I didn’t call it drowning because he had injuries of the chest and abdomen, and I didn’t get a history that Jaheem was ever underwater.”
Hoffey further tried to cast doubt on his client’s guilt by asking if it was possible Jaheem was injured earlier in the day but didn’t show symptoms until he vomited that night, and Dr. Thompson conceded that it was possible. Hoffey asked, “Hypothetically, let’s say a four-year-old child with these internal injuries is placed in a tub. Would it be reasonable for a caretaker to believe that child had drowned?” Dr. Thompson answered, “Yes.”
This, of course, didn’t address why Jaheem was completely dry.
The following day, Tuesday, October 30, more witnesses took the stand, including Walter’s sister, Ieasha Moore, who testified that when she visited her brother around 7:00 PM on the evening of Jaheem’s death, she didn’t see or hear anything of concern. She said the girls were watching TV while she was there, and Walter told her the two boys were upstairs sleeping. Ieasha later saw the younger boy come down the stairs rubbing his eyes as if he just woke up. Matthew Hoffey asked, “Did that seem unusual?”
Ieasha replied that it wasn’t unusual to her. “Kids fall asleep at any time of day.”
Later, she testified, she went home to host a bonfire, during which Walter called and asked to speak with her fiance, Johnelle Collett, who quickly left the bonfire without explaining why. Ieasha testified, “He was gone a couple minutes, then called and said, ‘Police and everybody is here.’”
Walter’s other sister, Walteshia Moore, told the court that she also visited the townhouse that night, as well, around 6 or 7 pm. While she was braiding her brother’s hair, he received a call from Danielle and went upstairs to check on Jaheem, coming back down with a wad of sheets that he threw in the washing machine, saying Jaheem had thrown up on the bed. Walteshia said, “I just thought it was a normal kid sickness. It was really hot that day.”
Another defense witness was next-door neighbor Tessa Reeves, who testified that she didn’t hear any loud noises coming from Danielle’s unit that day and that the walls separating the units were paper thin. On cross-examination, however, Prosecutor Williams got Tessa to admit that she wasn’t home for portions of the day and that there were times when she was on her back porch when she wouldn’t be able to hear sounds from some parts of the next-door unit.
At the end of Tuesday’s testimony, both the prosecution and the defense rested, and Judge Lekar instructed everyone to return on Thursday morning.
During closing arguments on Thursday, November 1, 2018, County Attorney Brian Williams replayed Walter’s police interview for the jury and showed them once again Jaheem’s autopsy photos. “It’s not just that there’s frozen meat in the bathroom. It’s not that he makes 11 phone calls before he calls 911. It’s not that he gives the name Johnelle Collett. It’s why he did these things.”
He told the jury the evidence showed that Walter Williams beat four-year-old Jaheem Harris severely enough to cause full-body bruising and caused his fatal injuries. “The pattern, the nature, the sheer volume of injuries — the pictures tell us everything about what was going on here.”
On Friday, November 2, the jury returned with a verdict.
Prior to the verdict being announced, Judge Kellyann Lekar warned the gallery to “remain calm and with decorum” once the verdict was read until the jury left the courtroom. Ten Black Hawk County Sheriff’s deputies were placed in the courtroom that day.
Throughout the entire trial, Walter Williams had openly stared at Corion’s side of the family where they sat in the gallery to watch the trial. He spent a good portion of the trial smirking arrogantly; reporters even snapped photos of his smug expression, which I’ll include in the Facebook album. It’s enough to enrage the most even-tempered person.
Not breaking character, Walter smirked at the spectators prior to his verdict being read, but that smug expression disappeared quickly, replaced with a stone-faced expression, when the verdict was announced. Walter was found guilty of child endangerment resulting in the death of a child, but instead of first-degree murder, the jury found him guilty of a lesser included charge of involuntary manslaughter while committing a public offense.
For the child endangerment charge, he could be sentenced to up to 50 years; the manslaughter charge could only net him less than five years, and under Iowa law, the sentences would merge. After the verdict was read, Walter was returned to jail on a no-bond hold to await his sentencing, which would take place almost two months later.
In the meantime, after the defendant and the jury left the courtroom, the spectators remained quiet until they filed into the hallway, where emotions took over, leading to shouting and arguments. One woman, one of Danielle’s cousins, was handcuffed in the parking lot by sheriff’s deputies, although she was not arrested, instead only escorted to her vehicle and given a verbal warning.
During the sentencing hearing, which took place on January 18, 2019, Jaheem’s “mama,” Shay, was finally able to make her voice heard during a victim impact statement. She addressed the convicted killer directly, saying, “God isn’t pleased with you, Walter. You’ve done wicked. You’ve shown me that you are an evil, wicked person. The way you smirked at us during trial, the way you’re smirking at me right now, I know you ain’t sorry. Our tears are real. The pain you inflicted on us is real.”
Shay told Walter she wished he would spend the rest of his life in prison. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Due to the merged sentences under Iowa state law, Judge Lekar imposed the only sentence allowed, sentencing Walter Cordell Wiliams to 50 years in prison with credit for 509 days served. He was also ordered to provide a DNA sample and to pay the victim’s parents’ $150,000 in restitution.
Judge Lekar told the convicted, “I am not permitted to issue a life sentence, but I would if I could. I am not able to require a mandatory minimum service on your part, but I would if I could.”
A year after his sentence was handed down, in January of 2020, now represented by State Appellate Defender Martha J. Lucey and Assistant Appellate Defender Bradley M. Bender, Walter Williams tried to appeal his conviction, saying there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction. He also made claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, saying his defense attorney failed to object to some jury instructions, and additionally, he complained the court improperly imposed restitution without determining his ability to pay. In August, the Iowa court of appeals affirmed his conviction, leaving most of his claims open to present in more detail during a possible future appeal.
Now 26 years old, Walter Cordell Williams, Iowa DOC offender #6654481, is incarcerated in the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, a medium security facility housing up to 1,400 inmates with a staff of approximately 262. His tentative discharge date is listed as June 1, 2040.
Because there is no mandatory minimum time served before Walter can be considered for parole, unbelievably, he’s scheduled for review in January of 2022, only three years after being sentenced. Members of Jaheem’s family will be in attendance at any future parole hearings to make their feelings known on the prospect of their baby’s killer being released.
Jaheem was a beautiful child who was cherished and very much wanted, at least by his father’s side of the family, and he deserved to be protected — by his mother, and, failing that, by DHS, who failed to intervene despite repeated attempts of family members to save Jaheem’s life.
In the eyes of many, Jaheem was also failed by the criminal court system. His mother was never held accountable for leaving him in the care of a man against whom she had a no contact order due to domestic violence, and she never admitted to seeing bruises on her son prior to his death, although the autopsy photos clearly show several bruises in varying stages of healing, indicating he was abused over time. Walter Williams himself admitted to police he frequently hit the little boy, and it’s almost unfathomable that Danielle saw no signs that her son was chronically abused at the hands of a man who once punched her in the face.
Danielle was never charged in connection with Jaheem’s death, other than a single charge of violating a no contact order, for which she spent 7 days in jail — at her leisure, I might add.
On top of that, despite the many additional charges prosecutors could have pressed against Walter Williams, he was only charged with two, found guilty of one of those and a lesser version of the other, and sentenced only for one of them anyway. He will likely walk out of prison when he’s plenty young enough to father more children to abuse. I can’t imagine why or how this man only faced two charges in the chronic abuse and brutal beating death of this beloved little boy. No matter what the reason, Walter Williams’ sentence, not to mention the fact that Danielle Harris was never charged at all, doesn’t feel like justice.
As I mentioned earlier, when Jaheem died, all of Danielle’s surviving children were removed from her custody. Her second child still lives with his father, and unfortunately, I’ve been unable to determine where her oldest daughter ended up. Jaheem’s younger brother and sisters, who were in the home at the time of Jaheem’s death, were placed with a foster family in early 2018 that ended up being their forever family, officially adopting the three kids in 2019. I wish nothing but the best for all of Jaheem’s surviving siblings, including a sister who was born after Walter’s trial and who is the only one of Danielle’s children who remains in her custody.
To this day, Jaheem’s grave is marked by nothing more than a small plaque bearing his name, reportedly because his mother refuses to sign off to allow his father’s side of the family to honor him with a proper headstone. Since no permanent monument is in place for Jaheem, it’s all the more important to help his family keep his memory alive.
Jaheem Samir Harris leaves behind six siblings and a huge extended family on both his mother’s and his father’s side, including multiple grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. He was a happy, cheerful, social, imaginative little boy who was the spitting image of his daddy. Jaheem adored school, his family, and, according to his obituary, “dancing, music, Paw Patrol, lifting weights, pretending to drive, and singing.” He was described as an “energetic boy with a smile that would light up a room,” and a look at any of his photos will be enough to back up that statement.
Jaheem’s Mama Shay posts frequently on Facebook about him. On November 25, 2019, she posted, “Man Jaheem words cannot express how much your mama Shay loves and miss you. I wish this pain would just leave my heart. But part of me died when you did.”
Rest in eternal peace, Jaheem. You are so loved, and you will never be forgotten.
On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, please tune in for Suffer the Little Children Podcast Episode 46: Jaheem Harris (Part 2), for which I had the pleasure of talking to Jaheem’s paternal grandma, Shay Caston, who was open and candid with me about who Jaheem was and the catastrophic effects his death has had on the members of her family, including herself.
Sources: The Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier, Kearns Funeral Service, 9 ABC KCRG, News 7 KWWL, Associated Press, Iowa DOC website, Iowa Courts Online Search website, VINElink, the Waterloo Police Department website, court documents, the Educate Iowa website, Facebook, and Shay Caston