CEDAR RAPIDS — A judge granted the defense's request Tuesday to move the retrial of Nicholas Luerkens, charged with fatally stabbing his former girlfriend in a grocery store parking lot in 2015, out of Linn County based on “pervasive" pretrial publicity.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner said he doesn’t know to which county the trial will be moved, but it will be out of this “media market” and to a county that can bring in a larger jury pool.
The Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in May that Luerkens should have a new trial because the judge should have allowed the jury to consider an insanity defense. In June, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review that decision.
Turner ruled during the trial that the defense hadn’t submitted sufficient evidence to present the insanity claim to the jury.
During the short hearing on Tuesday, Leon Spies, Luerkens’ Iowa City attorney, said he was going to file a motion to continue the trial. The trial was set for Dec. 4.
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden didn’t resist moving the trial. He said it would be appropriate, considering Luerkens was tried in Linn in 2015 and was convicted.
Turner said he will ask court administrators to check with other counties and the new trial date will be dependent upon what works with the other district’s schedule.
Spies, in his change of venue motion filed last month, cited extensive news and social media coverage following Luerkens’ arrest, his trial and the Iowa Court of Appeals decision in May that overturned the first-degree murder conviction.
Spies also said in the motion that the press coverage created a “presumption of prejudice but also an atmosphere of actual bias in Linn County.” There is a “substantial likelihood” that Luerkens would not receive a fair and impartial trial in this county, he added.
Evidence at the 2015 trial, including a surveillance video of the attack, showed Luerkens stabbed Donald 32 times. He ambushed her in the parking lot as she was holding the hand of her 7-year-old son, who saw the stabbing and ran to his home. Luerkens then turned the knife on himself, saying he was going to jail and wanted to die, witnesses testified.
The defense never denied Luerkens killed Donald, only that he had diminished capacity.
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