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Jurors In Martinko Case Hear From Suspect, Jailhouse Informant

Courtesy: Linn County Attorney's Office
A jailhouse informant testified that the man accused of killing Martinko signed a photograph of himself from a newspaper article about the case. The image was formally accepted into the case.

Jurors in the case of a man accused of killing 18-year-old Michelle Martinko in Cedar Rapids in 1979 heard from the suspect himself Tuesday. Prosecutors played a covertly recorded interview that investigators conducted with Jerry Lynn Burns in December of 2018. A jailhouse informant also testified in the case Tuesday.

This was the first time jurors in the case have heard from Burns in his own voice. The 66-year-old defendant has sat next to his legal team in the courtroom, dressed in a suit each day as the jury hears testimony from witnesses.

Before the interview conducted at Burns’ powder coating business in Manchester, Iowa, officers from the Cedar Rapids Police Department had secretly collected DNA from a straw Burns used at a restaurant.

Investigators sent that straw to DNA forensics analysts at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation laboratory for testing. Criminalists there determined that a genetic profile developed from the straw Burns used is consistent with a male genetic profile developed from a bloodstain on the dress Martinko was wearing when she was killed.

That genetic consistency is what spurred investigators to travel to Manchester to interview Burns on December 19, 2018, exactly 39 years after Martinko’s death.

In the video played over a television monitor in the courtroom, investigators Matt Denlinger and J.D. Smith questioned Burns about what he knew about Martinko’s killing.

Early on the morning of December 20, 1979, she was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick, parked outside of the Westdale Mall.

Burns initially said he didn’t know much about the case, other than what he saw in the news, and he denied knowing Martinko or being there when she was killed.

After handing Burns a search warrant, the investigators took a cheek or buccal swab for another DNA sample, which they would send to DCI for further testing.

The investigators then pressed Burns again about where he was when Martinko was killed, telling him directly that they had in fact already covertly collected DNA from him, and that it was consistent with DNA found at the crime scene.

“The reality is we’re not, we’re not here on a whim. We’re here to confirm what we already know,” Denlinger told him. “I’m telling you Jerry, I already know that your DNA is going to match the DNA that we have on file.”

“The reality is we have your DNA at the crime scene. And so we know you were there that night. This happened,” Denlinger continued. “But what we don’t know, Jerry is why it happened.”

"The reality is we have your DNA at the crime scene. And so we know you were there that night. This happened. But what we don't know, Jerry is why it happened." - Investigator Matt Denlinger, Cedar Rapids Police Department

Burns questioned this genetic evidence, repeatedly telling the investigators to “test the DNA."

“Did you murder someone that night, Jerry?” Denlinger asked him.

“Test the DNA,” Burns replied.

“Jerry,” Denlinger continued.

“Test the DNA,” Burns said.

“Why did this happen, Jerry?” Denlinger asked.

“Test the DNA,” Burns said.

“What happened?” Denlinger asked.

“I don’t know. I was not there that night,” Burns replied.

“You don’t know why this happened?” Denlinger asked him.

“I was not there that night,” Burns said.

“Well, we know better than that,” Denlinger replied.

The investigators did have further testing done on the cheek swab they took from Burns that day.

DCI Criminalist Michael Schmit testified Monday that the profile developed from the cheek swab is consistent with the profile developed from the straw Burns used, and is also consistent with the profile developed from a bloodstain on Martinko’s dress. He said the probability of finding the profile in a “population of unrelated individuals chosen at random would be less than one out of a hundred billion.”

Burns has pleaded not guilty to the first degree murder charge. His legal team has posed questions about whether evidence in the case has been properly handled since 1979.

On Tuesday jurors also heard testimony from a jailhouse informant who was housed in the bunk next to Burns in the Linn County Jail. Michael Allison is facing a federal drug charge, and has previously been convicted of and served time for other drug charges.

Allison testified that he and Burns developed a “close” relationship while living in the same unit, saying they would play pinochle together and talk about their lives. Allison said that Burns would sometimes refer to him as “son” and that he would sometimes refer to Burns as “dad."

Allison testified that though Burns would not say if he killed Martinko, that he would allude to the 40-year-old cold case, and recounted various interactions that related to the case.

Allison testified that an article about Burns’ case was published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which Allison said he received and read at the jail. Allison testified that Burns autographed a photograph from the article which depicted Burns in handcuffs in a courtroom, with the words: “To my favorite son Michael,” along with his signature.

A picture of the signed image was shown to the jury and formally accepted into the case file.

Allison testified that Burns recounted to him an exchange Burns had with an officer following one of his court appearances, in which he and the officer had “somewhat of a stare down."

“‘Son,’ he said, ‘they might have me, but I don’t have to bow my head to em’,” Allison testified.  

"He feels like that no matter what happens in this case, that he wins because he had the opportunity to be out there with his family all these years." - Michael Allison, jailhouse informant testifying against Jerry Lynn Burns

Allison also testified that he and Burns talked about his feelings about what might be the ultimate outcome of the case. If convicted, Burns could face life in prison. But Allison said regardless of the final verdict, Burns feels he’s already won.

“He feels like that no matter what happens in this case, that he wins because he had the opportunity to be out there with his family all these years,” Allison said.

Allison also said that earlier this year, there was a period of time when he was repeatedly beating Burns during their games of pinochle. Allison said he remembered well Burns’ reaction to his winning streak.

“He had told me if keep beating him in pinochle, he was going to have to take me to the mall,” Allison testified.

Allison said the comment “disgusted” him, and that it was after this exchange that he decided to talk with his attorney about Burns’ case.

Burns’ legal team questioned Allison’s bias and credibility, outlining his previous convictions and possible sentences he could face if convicted for the charge he is currently imprisoned for. Defense attorney Leon Spies directly asked Allison if he was testifying to try to get a shorter sentence for his charge.

“Mr. Allison, are you using Jerry Burns as a bargaining chip to try to get a better sentence in your federal case?” Spies asked.

“No, sir. Not at all,” Allison replied.

Allison later said he has not been promised any sort of deal or plea agreement based on his testimony in Burns’ case.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter