Public Safety

Jury selection begins for Manchester man accused in 1979 Michelle Martinko killing

The trial, moved from Linn County to Scott County, is expected to last two weeks

Jerry Burns arrives for a pretrial hearing Jan. 10 in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Burns is charged with
Jerry Burns arrives for a pretrial hearing Jan. 10 in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Burns is charged with first-degree murder in the 1979 death of Michelle Martinko in Cedar Rapids. Jury selection begins today. The trial was moved to Scott County because of pretrial publicity. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jury selection begins today in a cold case that shook the Cedar Rapids community when 18-year-old Michelle Martinko was killed in 1979.

Westdale Mall had just opened, and most teens were looking forward to shopping and hanging out there. But that anticipation turned to fear Dec. 20. Police found the Kennedy High School senior fatally stabbed in her parents’ Buick, which was parked in a lot behind the J.C. Penney at Westdale.

Martinko, who went to the mall in search of a winter coat, was brutally attacked and stabbed 21 times. Police said she had been killed Dec. 19. There was no witnesses. No murder weapon or fingerprints were found in the car. Blood was found on the back of Martinko’s black dress and gearshift of the car, but police couldn’t identify a suspect.

It would take 39 years before science and technology advancements with DNA would lead authorities to the man they say killed Martinko — Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester.

Burns was arrested Dec. 19, 2018 — the 39th anniversary of Martinko’s death. He was charged the next day with first-degree murder. Authorities said a public genealogy database, GEDmatch, led to Burns being identified as a match to blood evidence found on Martinko’s dress and the gearshift.

A criminal complaint showed that a partial male DNA profile was developed from blood found on Martinko’s dress. Fewer than 1 in 100 billion unrelated individuals could have the same profile.

Police covertly obtained Burns’ DNA from a drinking straw he left on a table after eating lunch Oct. 29, 2018, at the Pizza Ranch in Manchester, according to testimony during last month’s hearings.

Burns repeatedly told investigators he didn’t know how his DNA was found at the crime scene, according to testimony. He said he didn’t know Martinko and he had no memory of being at the crime scene.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover made two important rulings last week, one favoring the prosecution and the other a win for the defense.

Last month, she heard testimony during three hearings on the defense’s motions to suppress computer evidence found during a police search and DNA evidence, arguing police didn’t have a warrant and violated Burns’ rights.

Hoover ruled to allow the DNA evidence at trial, and that a warrant wasn’t needed. Burns gave up his right to privacy when he left the straw for disposal, she said.

She also denied Burns’ assertion that the comparison of the male DNA profile developed from Martinko’s black dress with DNA from Brandy Jennings, a distant cousin, found in the GEDmatch database, which is public, was an illegal search of his “familial genetic material.”

In favor of the defense, Hoover ruled evidence of Burns’ deviant computer searches and activity involving blonde women sexually assaulted and killed, which the prosecution said showed motive or intent, cannot be used at trial. She said the activity from 2018 lacked relevance for a crime that happened in 1979.

During the last pretrial hearing Friday, Hoover took final motions under advisement, including whether the jury will hear character evidence about Martinko, and testimony that Burns refused to give investigators an explanation for why his DNA was found in the car.

The trial, moved to Scott County District Court because of pretrial publicity, is expected to last at least two weeks. Gazette reporter Trish Mehaffey will provide live coverage from the courtroom, and viewers can follow her and ask questions as soon as testimony starts.

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

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