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Prosecutors Rest Their Case Against Man Accused Of Killing Martinko

Linn County Jail via AP
This Dec. 19, 2018 photo provided by Linn County (Iowa) Jail shows Jerry Burns, who has pleaded not guilty to killing an Iowa high school student in 1979.

Prosecutors in the trial of Jerry Lynn Burns rested their case Wednesday. Burns is suspected of killing high schooler Michelle Martinko in Cedar Rapids in 1979 and he faces a first degree murder charge.

Eighteen-year-old Martinko was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick parked in the Westdale Mall parking lot early on the morning of December 20, 1979. Her killing upended the lives of her family members and shocked Cedar Rapids residents. The case has stuck in the memories of many for decades.

Thirty-nine years after Martinko was killed, investigators arrested 66-year-old Burns of Manchester, Iowa, after covertly collecting his DNA and testing it. Genetic material retrieved from a straw that Burns used is consistent with DNA found on the dress Martinko was wearing when she died, according to court testimony by forensic genetics experts.

On Wednesday prosecutors argued the scientific evidence in the case is “irrefutable” and that it links Burns to the scene of the crime.

They also argued the suspect acted with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, with premeditation and a specific intent to kill, as is articulated in Iowa Criminal Code.

Investigators and forensic analysts have previously testified that Martinko died after being stabbed repeatedly, and that she suffered defensive wounds, signs that she put up a fight.

There is also evidence that Martinko’s assailant wore gloves during the attack, leaving behind prints of the glove material at the crime scene but obscuring their own fingerprints. An investigator testified that based on their analysis, the gloves appeared to be common kitchen gloves, the kind that are often used for dishwashing and are sold at grocery stores.

Prosecutors have argued the use of these gloves is evidence of premeditation.

Prosecutors have not been able to establish that Martinko and Burns knew each other or had any kind of relationship, and have described the killing as “a random act of violence committed by a stranger."

Jurors heard more testimony Wednesday from investigator Matt Denlinger of the Cedar Rapids Police Department, one of the many officers who have worked on the case over the years.

It was under Denlinger’s tenure that the male genetic profile developed from crime scene evidence was shared with private genetic analysis firms and was uploaded to a public family genealogy website and used to develop a family tree. Investigators say these steps were instrumental in leading them to Burns, who has no previous criminal history.

In court on Wednesday, prosecutors played a video recording of Denlinger interviewing Burns, in handcuffs, in the back of a squad car on the way to the Cedar Rapids Police Department. There are long periods where the men sit in silence, but Denlinger also repeatedly asks Burns about what happened the night Martinko was killed.

“I wish you could talk me through the issues that night, put me in your shoes if it would help me understand what was going through your mind,” Denlinger said.

“I don’t recollect,” Burns replied.

Since Burns was arrested in December of 2018, a criminalist at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation laboratory has analyzed DNA from a cheek swab taken from Burns, and has testified that Burns’ genetic profile is consistent with the genetic profile from the crime scene.

Questioned in court by prosecutor Nick Maybanks, Denlinger testified that during the car ride when he asked if it’s possible Burns forget what happened that night in 1979, Burns told him it is possible for people to “block out” their memories.

“Besides the comment that Mr. Burns made about blocking out memories, did Mr. Burns offer an explanation as to what happened that night?” Maybanks asked.

“No,” Denlinger replied.

“And besides saying that he does not recollect or does not know, to questions about what was going on in his life, did he offer more explanation of his life circumstances?” Maybanks asked.

“No,” Denlinger responded.

In further questioning, Denlinger went on to testify that Burns never told him that he “had the wrong guy," and that the suspect never denied killing Martinko.

“Where in the action, interaction between you and Mr. Burns in the squad car does he deny killing Michelle Martinko?” Maybanks asked.

“He never denied it,” Maybanks said.

Burns has pleaded not guilty to the charge. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Judge Fae Hoover Grinde has ruled that there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to the jury, overruling a motion for a judgement of acquittal by the defense. Burns’ defense team will take up the case Thursday.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter