Public Safety

Nicholas Luerkens pleads guilty to first-degree murder

Admission comes as retrial in stabbing of Lynnsey Donald about to begin

Nicholas Luerkens exits the courtroom following a case management hearing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 11, 2017. Nicholas Luerkens was convicted of the stabbing death of Lynnsey Donald in the Marion Hy-Vee parking lot in 2015. He was given a new trial after an appeal to the state Supreme Court. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Nicholas Luerkens exits the courtroom following a case management hearing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 11, 2017. Nicholas Luerkens was convicted of the stabbing death of Lynnsey Donald in the Marion Hy-Vee parking lot in 2015. He was given a new trial after an appeal to the state Supreme Court. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A retrial next week for Nicholas Luerkens, who stabbed his former girlfriend 32 times in front of her 7-year-old son in 2015, will not go forward because he unexpectedly pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder.

“I stabbed and killed Lynnsey Donald,” Luerkens, 35, calmly said when a judge asked him to explain what he did April 21, 2015, in the Marion Hy-Vee parking lot.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner then ask Luerkens if he admitted to having “specific intent” when he “willfully, deliberately and with premeditation” killed the 29-year-old woman, in which he quickly replied, “Yeah.”

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

A Hy-Vee manager eventually wrestled Luerkens to the ground, trying to get the knife from him as he turned it on himself, saying he was going to jail and 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 different 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, only arguing that he had diminished capacity at the time.

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The Iowa Court of Appeals, however, 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.

Turner ruled at trial that the defense hadn’t submitted sufficient evidence to present the insanity claim to the jury.

After Thursday’s hearing, Paula Fields, Donald’s close friend, could only say one word — “thankful” — to describe what she was feeling. The grandfather of Donald’s now-10-year-old son also attended the hearing with Fields. Both had tears in their eyes and seemed relieved.

Steve Donald, Lynnsey’s father who lives out of state and couldn’t attend, said in a statement that “I am relieved that Nicholas Luerkens pleaded guilty and owned up to what he did. His guilty plea spared us the anguish of a second trial.”

Luerkens, who remained calm and never hesitated during the plea, thanked his parents and other family members and friends for coming Thursday. Then Linn County sheriff’s deputies led him back to the jail.

His parents and other family members were tearful at the hearing.

Leon Spies, Luerkens’ defense attorney, told the judge during the hearing that he carefully went over the plea with Luerkens the night before to make sure his client understood the rights he was giving up by not having a second trial and the penalty he faces.

In Iowa, a conviction of first-degree murder is an automatic life sentence without parole.

Spies left the courthouse after the hearing and didn’t return a phone message later Thursday for comment.

The second trial was set to start Monday in Davenport on a change of venue based on extensive pretrial publicity. Luerkens again had planned to claim insanity, diminished capacity or intoxication as a defense. The only change in his defense would have been a new expert witness to testify about Luerkens’ medical or mental issues, according to court documents.

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Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said after the hearing he didn’t know why Luerkens decided to plead.

“There was nothing for him to gain,” Vander Sanden said, commending Luerkens for his decision. There was never any plea concession given, he added.

“It hasn’t happened in my 38 years that someone facing a life sentence pleads to the charge — they usually go to trial. I’m relieved that her family and friends were spared the anxiety and distress of a second trial.”

Sentencing is set June 5 in Linn County District Court.

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

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