CEDAR RAPIDS — After 2-year-old Bella Loffer died, Cody Stevenson confessed to police that his punches caused her death. But during his first-degree murder trial, which came to a close Monday, he told jurors he lied to police to protect his girlfriend — Bella’s mother.
On Monday, after 2½ hours of deliberation, a Linn County jury found Stevenson not guilty.
Members of Bella’s family in the courtroom were upset and crying as the verdict came in.
Stevenson’s family looked relieved and hugged him.
“We have always believed in Cody, and we always hoped that once we got this case in front of a jury they would see and understand what we have known and understood since the first day we met him,” Stevenson’s attorneys, Johnson County public defenders Rachel Antonuccio and Peter Persaud, said in a statement after the verdict.
“Cody is just looking forward to getting home to his family, who has loved and supported him unconditionally during the 19 long months since he was arrested in July of 2017,” they said.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the verdict but respects the jury’s decision.
Bella’s family declined to comment.
Authorities said Stevenson, 31, of Williamsburg, punched the toddler in the abdomen three times on June 30, 2017. She died from blunt force injuries July 3.
The trial was moved from Iowa County because of pretrial publicity.
Stevenson testified Friday that he didn’t hit the child. He said he took the blame for hitting Bella because he was covering for her mother, Amanda Loffer. He said he didn’t want Loffer to lose her job or her four other children. Stevenson was not Bella’s father.
During closing statements Monday, Hammerand told the jury that Stevenson admitted to police he “punched (Bella) in the gut, maybe three times” because he was angry.
Stevenson was Bella’s primary caretaker when her mother was working in June 2017. He spent the majority of his time in the upstairs bedroom with Bella.
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“You heard the audio of the interview,” Hammerand said to the jury. “This (bedroom) was the scene of the crime. This is where he took his fist and came down on her three times.”
Hammerand said investigators asked Stevenson if Loffer hurt Bella, but he denied that more than once. When he did admit to hitting the toddler, he gave details of how it happened. Stevenson told police he was sitting on the bed with Bella, who was lying on her back, when he punched her three times.
“He demonstrated what he did (on a doll),” Hammerand told jurors as he played video police recorded of Stevenson.
Hammerand asked the jurors to also consider the jail phone calls between Stevenson and his mother. In one call, he tells his mother he is not covering up for Loffer. In another call, he says it again and adds, “There’s no way out.”
Persaud, Johnson County chief public defender, told jurors the case isn’t that simple. He asked them to look into Stevenson’s “heart and mind to evaluate his actions.”
Persaud asked jurors to consider what they saw when Stevenson testified and how he comprehends things. He has a low IQ — borderline intellectual disability. Investigators interrogated him for four hours and kept pushing him to tell them why he did it, Persaud said.
The details Stevenson gave police were what he saw Loffer do, Persaud said. He couldn’t come up with the “why” because it wasn’t him, he said. Persaud pointed to testimony from an expert witness who said it’s common for people to make false confessions to protect someone. He wanted to protect Loffer from losing her job and her children, Persaud said.
Loffer, who testified Friday, only had “good things” to say about Stevenson, Persaud said. She said he was “gentle, a teddy bear and biggest kid in the world.” She also said Bella loved him.
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Persaud said Loffer was the one who had “indifference” to Bella’s life. Her parental rights have been terminated with her other children because she didn’t take the necessary steps to get them back, he said.
The prosecution gave Loffer a “free pass,” Persaud said, telling her that nothing said in court could be used against her if she is criminally charged.
“Make the state prove it,” Persaud said. “Hold their feet to the fire to prove their case.”
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The trial of Cody Stevenson began Tuesday, Jan. 29. Reporter Trish Mehaffey continues to live-tweet from the courtroom.
Stevenson is accused of punching his girlfriend’s child in the abdomen multiple times on June 30, 2017, according to the criminal complaint. The toddler, Izabella “Bella” Loffer, died from injuries July 3, police said.
Today, closing statements will be made.
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