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Nicholas Luerkens sentenced to life in prison for killing former girlfriend in 2015

'I'm sincerely sorry for what happened,' he tells victim's family

Nicholas Luerkens says he accepts full responsibility for his crime as he addresses the family and friends of Lynnsey Donald, who he stabbed to death in 2015, at a sentencing hearing for Luerkens at the Linn County District Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Luerkens pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in May and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Nicholas Luerkens says he accepts full responsibility for his crime as he addresses the family and friends of Lynnsey Donald, who he stabbed to death in 2015, at a sentencing hearing for Luerkens at the Linn County District Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Luerkens pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in May and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The “anguish and distress” lifted Tuesday for the family of Lynnsey Donald, 29, who was stabbed 32 times in 2015, as they finally saw killer Nicholas Luerkens get sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Her father, Steve Donald, along with other family members, asked Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden to read a victim impact statement on their behalf during a hearing in Linn County District Court.

“It has been over three years since Lynnsey was brutally killed in the Marion Hy-Vee parking lot. The first trial and protracted appeals process that resulted in a reversal of the original conviction has been a great source of anguish and distress to the family and friends of Lynnsey,” it said in part.

The family said in the remarks they already gave victim impact statements after Luerkens' first conviction and sentencing in 2015, talking about how “devastating it was to lose her and the great void that was created when she was senselessly murdered.”

Vander Sanden said the family is grateful the legal process is over so “they can continue the healing process without the uncertainty and worry of further appeals.”

Luerkens, 35, of Cedar Rapids, asked 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner if he could address the "victims" during the hearing. Steve Donald and the others were stoic as Luerkens turned to face them.

“I’m sincerely sorry for what happened,” he said, but “I can’t take it back.” He said his actions were the result of mental illness and drugs, issues he should have gotten help with addressing but didn’t.

Luerkens said he understands why they are “upset” with him.

He then looked at his own parents and apologized, saying they had not raised him like this.

Judge Turner sentenced Luerkens, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last month just before his second trial was to start, to a mandatory life in prison without parole, saying he had no discretion in sentencing. Turner also ordered Luerkens to pay $150,000 to Donald’s family or her estate.

After the hearing as deputies took Luerkens out of the courtroom, he again told Donald’s family “I’m sorry” and told his family “I love you,” as his mother started crying.

Last month, days before Luerkens’ retrial, he unexpectedly pleaded guilty. He admitted that “I stabbed and killed Lynnsey Donald,” when a judge asked him to explain what he did April 1, 2015, in the Marion Hy-Vee parking lot.

Evidence at the 2015 trial, including a surveillance video of the attack, showed Luerkens ambushing Donald, his former girlfriend, in the parking lot as she was holding the hand of her 7-year-old son. After seeing the stabbing, the boy ran home — still clutching a bag of groceries.

A store manager eventually wrestled Luerkens to the ground, trying to get the knife away as Luerkens turned it on himself, saying he wanted to die, witnesses testified at the first trial. But his wounds were not life-threatening.

Testimony also showed Luerkens stalked Donald for months before the attack. Police found his journal that stated “Lynnsey will die” three times. He also made a disturbing “to do list” of how he would track down and kill her.

The defense never denied Luerkens killed Donald, arguing only that he had diminished capacity at the time.

The Iowa Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in May 2017, ruling Luerkens should have a new trial since the judge should have allowed the jury to consider an insanity defense. The next month, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review that decision, clearing the way for a second trial.

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Vander Sanden said Tuesday after the hearing he still didn’t know why Luerkens decided to plead guilty as that new trial neared.

“I know the family is grateful to not go through this again, as well as the witnesses,” Vander Sanden said. “It’s never happened in my 38 years — someone to plead guilty to first-degree murder.”

Leon Spies, Luerkens’ attorney, declined to comment last month about the decision. Spies left the courthouse immediately following Tuesday’s hearing.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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