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Court upholds murder conviction of Manchester man who killed Michelle Martinko
Court rules Jerry Burns voluntarily abandoned his DNA on a drinking straw police retrieved from trash that led to his arrest
DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court Friday affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a Manchester man who fatally stabbed 18-year-old Michelle Martinko in 1979, ruling he had no “reasonable expectation to privacy” when he tossed his drinking straw that contained his DNA in the trash and led to his arrest.
Justice David May, writing for the majority in a 4-2 split opinion, said Jerry Lynn Burns, 68, made no effort to “preserve” the straw “as private.” He left it at the Pizza Ranch in Manchester in 2018. It was left to be collected by employees or other diners — whether they were civilians or police officers surveilling him.
“Burns could hardly have retained any subjective expectation of privacy in the straw,” May said.
If Burns in some way expected privacy, his expectation isn’t accepted by society as reasonable, he added.
The court agreed with the prosecution’s argument that Burns voluntarily abandoned the straw.
“Intent to abandon ‘may be inferred from words, acts and other objective facts,’” according to the ruling.
The Fourth Amendment, which Burns argued police violated by taking the straw with his DNA, doesn’t protect voluntarily abandoned property, the court stated.
Burns also argued that unlike the straw, his DNA wasn’t visible to staff or others at the restaurant and his DNA profile couldn’t be obtained without lab analysis involving specialized equipment and technical expertise, so, he could still expect his DNA profile to remain private.
The court disagreed, in another case, the court of appeals concluded that a person who voluntarily abandoned a water bottle and fork also abandoned any expectation of privacy in the DNA left on the items. The court, agreeing with the prosecution, ruled that there isn’t a practical difference between DNA that a rapist leaves behind at a crime scene and the DNA left by Burns on the straw.
In both scenarios, an observer couldn’t see any DNA, much less a DNA profile. DNA profiles would have to be developed using technical expertise and equipment, according to the ruling. Neither instance involves a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The court said DNA is no different from fingerprints that are involuntarily left when someone touches a surface or object. Both are “powerful means of individual identification.” Fingerprints are also not visible to the naked eye and latent fingerprints are developed by using special technology to identify the source.
“Certainly, no one suggests that police would have needed a warrant to collect fingerprints from the cup that Burns left behind at the Pizza Ranch — or to use those fingerprints to determine whether Burns was in Martinko’s car on the night of the murder,” May said in the ruling.
The same is true of the DNA that Burns left on the straw that ultimately connected him with Martinko’s dress.
Martinko's body was found in her parents' Buick, which was parked near J.C. Penney at Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 19, 1979. According to trial testimony, she had gone to the mall that night to get a coat her mother had put on layaway.
The teen was stabbed 29 times, according to testimony. A pathologist said the fatal stab wound was to her heart and that she bled to death.
Burns' DNA profile was developed from blood on Martinko's black dress. The profile found a hit with DNA from a distant cousin in the GEDmatch database, which is public. That profile led to Burns and his two brothers. The two brothers were eliminated as suspects.
Burns also argued that DNA is different from fingerprints because they can only be used for identification and DNA analysis reveals vast amounts of private information such as genetic defects, predispositions to diseases and even genetic likelihood for non-criminal behaviors.
However, in this case, that isn’t the kind of information that police obtained using Burns’ DNA, the court stated. Burns’ DNA helped police establish one fact — that his DNA profile matched the one found on Martinko’s dress. It didn’t provide any genetic defects or predispositions to diseases — revelations that individuals might expect to keep private.
The court concluded the Fourth Amendment didn’t require police to obtain a search warrant before collecting the straw or before analyzing DNA on the straw.
Iowa law also allows law enforcement to collect and analyze genetic material to identify an individual during a criminal investigation.
Given the ‘‘unparalleled ability” of DNA technology to exonerate the innocent and to identify the guilty, “Iowans should fully expect that law enforcement agencies would use that technology to solve difficult cases like Martinko’s murder,” May said in the ruling.
Burns also argued the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support his conviction, but the court ruled that there was ample evidence for the jury to conclude he was at the scene of the crime. Martinko was “brutally murdered during vicious struggle” in her car, which the defense didn’t dispute. Burns only raises the identity issue — he wasn’t the killer.
The DNA taken from Burns was consistent with the DNA found on Martinko’s dress — “to a probability of one out of 100 billion unrelated persons,” according to the ruling. Burns’ DNA matched the profile obtained from the Buick’s gearshift and this match eliminated about 99.4 percent of all males in the United States.
Also, law enforcement observed “noticeable” scars on both of Burns’ hands and arms, the court stated. He could have received those during the struggle with Martinko.
A jury could also conclude that Burns’ statements to another inmate were admissions of guilt, including Burns autographing a Gazette news article about Martinko’s murder.
The court concluded the verdict was adequately supported.
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