Public Safety

Manchester man accused of killing Michelle Martinko wants trial moved out of Linn County

Jerry Burns, 64, of Manchester, appears in Linn County District Court on Oct. 21 with his attorney, Leon Spies. Burns is charged with first-degree murder in the 1979 death of Michelle Martinko, 18, in Cedar Rapids. Spies is asking the court to move Burns’ trial out of Linn County because of pretrial publicity. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Jerry Burns, 64, of Manchester, appears in Linn County District Court on Oct. 21 with his attorney, Leon Spies. Burns is charged with first-degree murder in the 1979 death of Michelle Martinko, 18, in Cedar Rapids. Spies is asking the court to move Burns’ trial out of Linn County because of pretrial publicity. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Manchester man accused of killing 18-year-old Michelle Martinko in 1979 wants his trial moved because the news coverage has generated “not only a presumption of prejudice but also an atmosphere of actual bias in Linn County.”

Leon Spies of Iowa City — the lawyer for Jerry Burns, 65, charged in Linn County District Court with first-degree murder — argued in a motion filed Tuesday that public awareness of the allegations against his client have been “heightened” by “persistent” press coverage of Martinko’s death and the investigation.

Interest and speculation about Burns’ trial have not dissipated over time, he said.

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.

Spies also argued the press coverage, coupled with the social media commentary, constitutes more than “routine reporting of a sensational crime.” Examples he cited include:

• Area news outlets kept the cold case in the news by observing the anniversary of Martinko’s death and reporting law enforcement efforts on the case.

• News reports of Burns having no “plausible explanation” of the DNA evidence — blood — linking him to the crime scene. The blood was found in her family’s vehicle where she was found dead Dec. 19, 1979, in the Westdale Mall parking lot.

• Since Burns’ arrest, all the reporting has focused on the covertly collected DNA from Burns, retrieved from a straw, which matched DNA found on Martinko’s clothing.

• News reports indicate an investigator who questioned Burns said Burns “showed almost no emotion” during the interview leading up to his arrest.

• News articles of search warrants obtained for Burns’ computers reveal internet searches of topics involving acts of sexual violence.

• Social media interest has resulted in blogs and related sites dedicated to covering the case and allowing commentary about Burns’ complicity in the crime.

A search warrant from last February previously obtained by The Gazette explains how genetic genealogy shared publicly on the GEDmatch website helped lead to the Dec. 19, 2018, arrest of Burns in the 39-year-old case.

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 blood stain 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.

Burns’ trial is set for Feb. 10. He remains in jail on a $5 million cash-only bail. Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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