Retired police, criminalists describe handling of evidence in Michelle Martinko murder case

Trial of Manchester man to continue Monday in Davenport

The dress Michelle Martinko was wearing the last day of her life in December 1979 is shown Friday in a Davenport courtro
The dress Michelle Martinko was wearing the last day of her life in December 1979 is shown Friday in a Davenport courtroom. Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester, is being tried on a first-degree murder charge in Scott County District Court. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DAVENPORT — Retired law enforcement officials and criminalists testified Friday about how DNA evidence from the Michelle Martinko fatal stabbing in 1979 was tested over the years as investigators continued their search for who killed the 18-year-old.

Most of the witnesses, testifying in the first-degree murder trial of Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester, who is accused of killing Martinko, had submitted evidence to or returned evidence from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation crime lab.

They all said they followed standard procedures and protocols in protecting Martinko’s bloody clothing and other items.

The testimony was important to the prosecution because Burns’ lawyer, Leon Spies of Iowa City, has been questioning how the evidence was handled over the 39 years since Martinko’s slaying, suggesting possible contamination of the evidence.

Authorities said a public genealogy database, GEDmatch, led to Burns being identified as a DNA match to the blood found on Martinko’s dress and the gearshift of the Martinko family’s Buick. Martinko’s body was found Dec. 20, 1979, in the Westdale Mall parking lot.

According to testimony, Martinko was stabbed 29 times. The fatal stab wound was to her sternum, which penetrated her aorta, and she bled to death, a pathologist testified.

Burns, arrested Dec. 19, 2018, and charged with first-degree murder, has denied killing Martinko and said he didn’t know how his DNA was found on the back of Martinko’s dress and on the car’s gearshift.

The trial, moved out of Linn County because of pretrial publicity, started Monday in Scott County District Court in Davenport. Testimony is to continue Monday, with live coverage from the courtroom by Gazette reporter Trish Mehaffey. The jury trial is expected to last all week and possibly into a third week.

Testing, retesting

The witnesses called Friday said the evidence of Martinko’s slaying — her dress, hose and underwear — was submitted from the Cedar Rapids Police Department to the crime lab in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2005, when there were advances in technology or when investigators were following up on a tip. Over the years, more areas of the dress that had blood stains were tested to improve investigators’ chances of finding a more complete DNA profile of a suspect.

Retired crime scene investigators and police investigators went over forms to show how they recorded the evidence and submitted it to the lab and how it was resubmitted another year.

Mark Fischer, a retired police investigator, testified that when he was assigned to an FBI task force he delivered evidence to the Cedar Rapids police once a month. In 2002, he picked up evidence in the Martinko case at the crime lab and returned it to the department. The packaged items would go back to the evidence locker or be placed in a locked box at the department.

Most of the witnesses said they wouldn’t open the packaged evidence and didn’t know its condition. They would check it out, make sure it was correctly tagged and sent it to the lab.


Doug Larison, who retired as a Cedar Rapids police investigator in 2016, said he was following up on a tip in 2005 and resubmitted the dress and other items for testing. He checked out the evidence, repackaged it and resubmitted it to the crime lab.

Larison said he examined the items to make sure they were in good condition and hadn’t been contaminated. He drove the evidence to the crime lab himself.

Larison, who investigated cold cases, worked on the Martinko case for about 10 years. He knew Martinko because they attended Kennedy High School at the same time.

Linda Sawer, a retired criminalist, testified that in 2005 she tested more areas of the dress, attempting to develop a DNA profile of a possible suspect. The gearshift blood scrapings had a mixed profile of Martinko and another person, a male.

Sawer said the male profile developed from the dress — which included blood and possibly other fluids, saliva or sweat — couldn’t be eliminated as a possible suspect. Fewer than one in 100 billion of unrelated individuals would have the same profile, she said.

Sawer said that statistic is computer generated and is what the lab uses in its reports.

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