IOWA CITY — Susan Kersten was victimized twice — once when she was killed nearly 22 years ago and again Friday when Steven Klein pleaded guilty to lesser charges, her daughter said.
“He got away with murder,” Sandra Rohrer said.
Klein, 56, on Friday pleaded guilty in Johnson County District Court to willful injury causing serious injury, second-degree arson, and suborning perjury in the 1995 death of Susan Kersten. He originally had been charged with first-degree murder.
Instead of a possible life sentence, Klein will serve a maximum 15 years in prison.
Klein entered an Alford plea, which is when a defendant claims innocence but admits the prosecution has enough evidence to convict.
“This is not justice,” Rohrer said of the verdict, expressing frustrations that none of the offenses indicated Klein actually killed her mother.
Rohrer also lashed out at the Johnson County Attorney’s Office, who she said reached the plea arrangement without the blessing of Kersten’s family.
“I am completely baffled by the Johnson County Attorney’s Office,” she said.
However, Assistant Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith said a conviction was not a sure thing, due to the passage of time and evidentiary issues in the case.
“I don’t think anyone is happy,” Zimmerman Smith said after Friday’s hearing.
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Authorities have said Kersten’s body was found in a field southeast of Iowa City on Sept. 24, 1995. The body was severely burned, but an autopsy revealed she died of several blows to her head.
Klein was quickly developed as a person of interest, but was not arrested until nearly 20 years later, in July 2015. That came after local authorities were visited by the cable television program, “Cold Justice,” which investigates cold cases involving homicide. Klein’s arrest came 10 days after TV crews arrived in Iowa City.
More than a dozen family members and supporters of Kersten filled the jurors box during Friday’s proceedings. Four family members entered victim impact statements, two of which were read by a victim advocate.
Two of Kersten’s children — Rohrer and Jason Kersten — were among those who addressed Klein. Jason Kersten fought back tears as he recited the lyrics to a song he wrote when he learned of his mother’s death.
“I cry myself to sleep,” he said. “My tears of rage run deep. Someone was taken from me.”
But, Kersten said the memory of his mother will live on.
“She’s going to have many, many things that she influenced, like my hard work and my family, that are wonderful,” he said. “You can’t take that away.”
Rohrer in her victim impact statement lamented the relationships Klein’s actions cost her. In addition to a life without her mother, Rohrer said Klein took away the two children he and Susan Kersten shared. Rohrer also never knew her biological father, information she believes her mother would have shared with her.
During her statement, Rohrer asked Klein to look her in the eye. He never did. Nonetheless, Rohrer offered him her forgiveness.
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“I want you to know I forgive you for hitting her, for killing her,” she said. “I forgive you for dousing her with gasoline and lighting her on fire. I forgive you.”
Klein, however, had no words for the family. When given an opportunity to speak, he declined.
In his comments to Klein, Judge Chad Kepros echoed the statements of the family, noting the relationships that had been robbed from them.
“To add insult to injury, while others suffered, while others waited ... you walked free for 20 years living your life,” Kepros said. “Nothing can be done to change the past. It’s never too late to take responsibility for your actions. It’s never too late to try to become a better person.”
Willful injury causing serious injury and second-degree arson are Class C felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison. According to the plea agreement, those two sentences will run concurrently. Suborning perjury — a charge related to him convincing someone to commit perjury a year ago — is a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison. That sentence will be served consecutively to the 10 year sentence.
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