Public Safety

Prominent Iowa City lawyer to defend Jerry Burns in Martinko case

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An Iowa City lawyer with a record of handling high-profile cases filed paperwork to defend Jerry L. Burns, 64, the Manchester man accused in the murder of Michelle Martinko, a Kennedy High School senior.

Leon Spies entered his appearance as Burns’ defense attorney with the Linn County District Court on Tuesday.

Though Burns’ request for a public defender was approved Dec. 21, Spies said he entered his appearance after Burns’ family “made arrangements” for him to represent Burns. Spies declined to go into detail on what those arrangements were.

Martinko was 18 when she was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick in the early morning hours of Dec. 20, 1979, in the parking lot of Westdale Mall.

For nearly four decades, the case had investigators stumped. Then last week, the Cedar Rapids Police Department announced they had used DNA evidence to link Burns to the crime.

Burns faces a charge of first-degree murder, and police have declined to comment on when or how Burns emerged as a suspect.

Spies, a lawyer of more than 40 years, has handled a number of headline cases that has earned him the reputation as one of the most successful trial lawyers in Iowa.

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One of those cases, the 2004 federal murder trial of Dustin Honken, was the first death penalty case tried in Iowa in 40 years.

Honken and Angela Johnson were charged with slaying five people, including two drug informants, a woman, and the woman’s daughters, ages 6 and 10, in 1993.

During the 10-week Sioux City trial, Spies aimed to undermine the prosecution’s case, questioning experts and arguing against the death penalty.

Honken was convicted and sentenced to death. He has been sitting on Death Row since.

Iowa abolished the state’s death penalty in 1965.

Other high-profile cases included:

• The 2008 case against a University of Iowa football player Cedric Everson, who — along with another player — was accused of assaulting a student female athlete in 2007 in a residence hall room.

• The federal case against Ron Gruber, an enforcer with the Sons of Silence motorcycle gang, who was charged with federal racketeering and state murder charges in the mid-1990s. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years.

He was paroled after 15 years and now does prison ministry in Des Moines.

• The 2007 case against Jane Barto, a former Iowa Workforce Development director, who was charged in federal court with obstructing an investigation into a scam at the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium. She was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $10,000.

• The 2012 case against Susan Freeman-Murdah, an Iowa City neighborhood center director who was charged with failing to report child abuse and was acquitted by a jury.

• The 2013 murder case against John Bloomfield, who was charged with the 1997 murder of his wife in Iowa City. Bloomfield died in November of cardiac arrest before he could stand trial.

• Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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