HARRISBURG — A Saline County jury returned a guilty verdict Friday against Harrisburg physician Brian Burns who tried to have the former state's attorney kidnapped while he was in jail on first-degree murder charges in the death of his wife.
After almost two full days of testimony and arguments, the jury deliberated for less than two hours Friday before delivering their verdict of guilty on all three counts in Burns’ kidnapping trial. He was charged with one count each of attempted aggravated kidnapping, solicitation and conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping.
The case rested on how one interprets the clandestinely recorded jailhouse conversations between Burns and cellmate Mark Stricklin — Stricklin agreed to wear a wire after bringing up letters Burns had allegedly written to him about his wishes to have the late State’s Attorney Mike Henshaw kidnapped. During a long day of testimony Thursday, the state played nearly three hours of talks between the two men, wherein Burns is heard asking if Stricklin knew anyone who could kidnap Henshaw for pay.
Burns was in jail on charges of first-degree murder and concealment of a homicidal death in the death of his wife, Carla Burns.
In his closing argument, Burns’ defense attorney, Bryan Drew, posited that all the conversations between the two men were fantasy. He recalled the night before, talking with his wife about a dream vacation to Greece, sipping coffee on a veranda, taking in the lush vista before them. Burns’ talk of kidnapping the state’s attorney and getting out of prison was just him dreaming big, according to Drew.
“It’s fantasy,” Drew said of these talks. What more did these men have to do other than talk and dream being locked up 24/7, Drew said.
Part of his argument also was the fact that Stricklin, a repeat offender being held on multiple charges of criminal sexual assault of children, saw an opportunity in Burns, a fresh face at the Saline County jail. Drew claimed that Stricklin had just seen a former cellmate be charged with at least 200 counts of similar sexual crimes and wanted a way out. He asserted there had to be a deal with law enforcement and Stricklin to help set up Burns.
The state’s special prosecutor, Matt Goetten, spoke briefly both in his closing argument and his closing rebuttal. He reaffirmed the narrative he had worked to build the day before.
Goetten wanted to make clear the definitions the jury would be receiving in their instructions. He pointed out that aggravated kidnapping was kidnapping with the intent to collect a ransom, which he said Burns planed to do when he colluded with Stricklin to kidnap Henshaw in the hopes his murder charges would be dropped. Goetten also reminded the jury that Burns even used the word kidnap multiple times in the recorded conversations.
Goetten laid out the definition of attempt as it relates to the charge. He said attempt is to perform any action that is a substantial step toward kidnapping. Solicitation is requesting the act take place, which he reminded the jury Burns appeared to have done when he talked over the phone with Stricklin’s contact, who was in fact an undercover Saline County detective.
In his closing argument, Drew made a big point about the fact that no money ever changed hands, and he said once the fantasy got too real, Burns started to back down. Burns gave Stricklin several excuses why he could not come up with the $1,000 agreed payment for the job. His assets were frozen, he told Stricklin once. He couldn’t get the money from his attorney, he said another time. But, according to Drew, Stricklin pressed anyway — a fact that Drew said was because the officers behind his deal would not accept anything short of money changing hands.
Drew brought out bank statements from Burns’ accounts from July to November 2016, the months over which the events allegedly took place, and pointed out in August he had roughly $25,000 in the bank and that several large checks had been written in that time.
“He had the money and he had access to the money,” Drew said in closing.
Drew said the plan — paying $1,000 to kidnap the state’s attorney, telling him to drop all of Burns’ charges and explaining the job was paid for by the community and Burns’ former patients — was illogical, again pointing the idea it was all a fantasy.
Drew said by signing a guilty verdict the jury would in fact be helping Stricklin, not the community.
Goetten said Burns knew exactly what he was doing. Yes, he said it was his first time in jail, but he was far from a dummy — he is a doctor after all. He pointed to Burns’ paranoia during the conversations — in the first recorded talk Burns is heard patting down Stricklin for a wire, which he never found.
“If I get caught, I’m dead,” Goetten said, quoting Burns. He said that the money never changed hands was irrelevant to the charges.
Burns will reappear in Judge Walden Morris’ court May 19 for a pretrial hearing in his murder case and again at 1:30 p.m. July 25 for sentencing in his kidnapping trial. Goetten said he will be sentenced based on the convicted charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping, a class X felony for which he could serve 6 to 30 years in prison with no chance of parole.