Jerry Burns sentenced to life for killing Michelle Martinko in 1979

Burns will 'forfeit his freedom and die alone,' Martinko's family member says

Jerry Lynn Burns and defense attorney Leon Spies (right) listen as First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nicholas Maybank
Jerry Lynn Burns and defense attorney Leon Spies (right) listen as First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nicholas Maybanks (not pictured) makes arguments on behalf of the state at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. Burns, who was convicted in February of killing Michelle Martinko in 1979, was sentenced to life in prison. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Martinko family lived without answers for 39 Christmases.

“Shock, anguish and horror” permeated the family them they first learned that 18-year-old Michelle Martinko was killed Dec. 19, 1979, John Stonebraker, her brother-in-law, said Friday in a videotaped victim impact statement.

Decades after the death, he had a voice in the first-degree murder sentencing of Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester.

Stonebraker and his wife, Janelle, Martinko’s only sister, live in Florida and were unable to attend the hearing. In his statement, Stonebraker said he will never forget Janet Martinko calling them early Dec. 20, 1979, after she had identified the “bloody, torn, broken body of her beautiful daughter. She wasn’t crying so much as gasping, choking. She could hardly speak.”

An investigation provided the answer after all those years of who and why someone killed Martinko. It lies in a “deeply selfish, lifelong personal need. A need Mr. Burns kept hidden all his adult life. Until now,” Stonebraker said.

The law cannot punish Burns for the damage he had done to Martinko’s family or the “terrible shock, shame, pain and devastation” inflicted on the innocent lives of his own family. Stonebraker said he is sad for the Burns family and wanted to “wish them well.”

But Burns will “forfeit his freedom forever and die alone. His mark on the world, and the sum of his life, will be a short notice, saying: ‘Convicted Martinko murderer dies in prison,’” Stonebraker bluntly said.

Before 6th Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover sentenced Burns to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Burns, who never showed any emotion during his trial in February, gave a short statement.


Burns said “somebody else” stabbed Martinko that night. He didn’t know who or why. Burns then turned toward his family, sitting in the courtroom, and thanked them for their support.

Burns maintained his innocence in pretrial hearings and throughout the trial, but the jury took only three hours to reach a verdict after hearing DNA evidence.

His wife and other close members of his family were allowed to attend the sentencing but seating was limited to allow for social distancing in the courtroom.

On the other side of the aisle sat several friends of Martinko.

The cold-case murder has drawn intense public interest, and Friday’s hearing was livestreamed because of limited seating.

Before sentencing, defense attorney Leon Spies made a motion for a new trial, arguing many of the same issues that had been ruled upon before. But he also said his private investigator had uncovered new evidence that wasn’t discovered until June.

A retired music teacher, Kathryn Birky, of Swisher, who taught private piano and organ lessons, said she had a regularly scheduled lesson with Martinko in the Westdale Mall the night of the attack, Spies said.

According to an affidavit, Birky, in a phone interview with an investigator who works for Spies, said she had been giving organ lessons to Martinko in 1979 at “Carma Lou’s House of Music.” Martinko had lessons between 8:30 and 9 p.m., Birky said.

Birky said she recalled Martinko was dressed up that night and said she came from a musical banquet, according to the affidavit. Martinko always came to her lessons alone but may have had someone waiting for her outside the mall.


Birky also noted that Martinko should have had two organ books and an assignment book with her after leaving the lesson that night.

The investigator reported Birky said the lessons were once a week; although she wasn’t sure which day of the week they were, she recalled the last lesson was the night Martinko was killed outside the mall.

Spies, in his motion, said evidence of a regularly scheduled music lesson gives credence to the possibility that her attacker was familiar with her routine. He waited for her at the mall and apprehended her in the parking lot, according to the theory. The music books either were dropped somewhere police didn’t searched or the killer disposed of them, he said.

Spies argued that if the defense had this evidence at trial, jurors might have come back with a different verdict.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said the information wouldn’t have changed the verdict. He pointed out that Martinko’s sister and brother-in-law said Martinko didn’t take organ lessons; Carma Lou’s House of Music wasn’t in Westdale; and none of the many witnesses who testified at trial about seeing Martinko at the mall that night never mentioned it.

He also said it was difficult to believe that law enforcement never came across such information in the nearly 40 years of investigation.

Judge Hoover, who had reviewed Spies’ written arguments and Maybanks’ resistance before the hearing, quickly denied the motion for a new trial. She affirmed her rulings made before and during trial regarding the defense’s motion.

Maybanks, in asking Hoover to sentence Burns to life, said this verdict and sentence would not only give peace to the family and many friends of Martinko who have waited four decades for justice, but provide “enormous relief” to the community.

Maybanks said it’s likely nobody will ever know why Burns committed the crime.


“Mr. Burns will have the rest of his life to ask for forgiveness and beg for mercy on his soul, but if he doesn’t, at least he won’t get to block it out anymore. Because this moment has finally come. This is the moment of reckoning for him and the moment, long awaited, of resting peace for Michelle.”

Burns’ trial attracted national attention because the cold case was solved after 39 years due in large part to DNA evidence and genetic genealogy. He was arrested Dec. 19, 2018 — on the anniversary of her death.

Martinko’s body was found in her parents’ Buick, which was parked near J.C. Penney at Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids. 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 Brandy Jennings, a distant cousin, in the GEDmatch database, which is public.

Investigators then narrowed down family trees of great grandparents to a first cousin and then Burns and his two brothers. The brothers were eliminated as suspects during the investigation.

Testimony showed Burns was the major contributor of the profile — less than one in 100 billion of unrelated individuals would have the same profile, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation criminalists said.

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

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