Michelle Martinko murder trial moved out of Linn County

Jerry Burns of Manchester, accused of killing Cedar Rapids teen in 1979, will be tried in Scott County

Jerry Burns appears in Linn County District Court on Oct. 21 with attorney Leon Spies to waive his right to a speedy tri
Jerry Burns appears in Linn County District Court on Oct. 21 with attorney Leon Spies to waive his right to a speedy trial. Burns, of Manchester, is charged with first-degree murder in the 1979 death of Michelle Martinko. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The trial for a Manchester man charged with killing 18-year-old Michelle Martinko in 1979 will be moved out from Linn to Scott County because of “pervasive publicity” — including social media — that would prevent the accused from having a fair and impartial jury.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover, in her order, said that since the death of Martinko in 1979, and the subsequent arrest of Jerry Burns, 65, charged with first-degree murder, there had been “pervasive publicity from all types of media.” There is a likelihood that Burns would not receive a fair and impartial trial from a Linn County jury because of extensive news and more recent social media coverage of the offense and evidence, which identified Burns as the killer, she added. 

Leon Spies of Iowa City, Burns’ lawyer, argued in a previous motion that public awareness of the allegations against his client have been “heightened” by “persistent” news coverage of Martinko’s death and the investigation. He said interest and speculation about the crime have not dissipated over time.

Given the news coverage of the forensic details and expected testimony from the prosecution, any prospective jurors in Linn County will have “fixed opinions about not only the accusations against the defendant but also the nature and weight of potential prosecution and defense evidence,” Spies said in the motion.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks, in a response, agreed. He said based on his 19 years of experience with other cases that have received significant news coverage, such a “degree of prejudice exists” in Linn County and there is “substantial likelihood a fair and impartial trial cannot be preserved with a jury selected” here.

The change of venue does not affect the start date for the trial, which had been scheduled for Feb. 10.

According to the affidavit, DNA from two distant cousins, when compared with DNA from the crime scene, led to Burns and his two brothers as possible matches.

His brothers were eliminated. But Burns’ DNA — collected from a soda straw by an investigator in October 2018 without his knowledge — was a match, the document shows.

According to another warrant from Dec. 19, authorities believe Burns may have cut himself during the 1979 attack.

A bloodstain on the back of Martinko’s dress matched Burns’ DNA, so it’s “logical to assume” his blood got on her dress from being cut “while he was stabbing her,” Cedar Rapids police investigator Matthew Denlinger stated in the affidavit.

The DNA on the public website came from a distant cousin, Brandy Jennings, 40, of Vancouver, Wash., who told The Gazette in March she had forgotten about uploading her DNA to the database.

Jennings was mentioned in the Feb. 5 warrant but said she was never contacted by police. She said she doesn’t know Burns or any of his family members and has no ties to Iowa.

The February warrant also revealed that activity on Burns’ office computer included searches for “blonde females, assault, rape, strangulation, murder, abuse and rape of a deceased individual and cannibalism.”

Burns, in a Dec. 19, 2018, interview with police, denied knowing Martinko or being at the crime scene.

Martinko was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick on Dec. 19, 1979, in a parking lot of Westdale Mall. The Kennedy High School senior had left a school choir banquet and driven to the mall to buy a winter coat. Her body was found the next day.

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

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