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Jury Finds Burns Guilty Of First Degree Murder In Killing Of Martinko

Courtesy: Linn County Attorney's Office
A jury has found Jerry Lynns Burns guilty of first degree murder in the killing of high schooler Michelle Martinko in Cedar Rapids in 1979.

After nine days of testimony and legal arguments, and more than 40 years of unanswered questions, Jerry Lynn Burns has been found guilty of killing Cedar Rapids high schooler Michelle Martinko, who was found stabbed to death in her family’s car outside the Westdale Mall in 1979. A jury of seven women and five men handed down the unanimous verdict Monday afternoon in Davenport after about three hours of deliberations. New developments in forensic DNA analysis and a family genealogy website led investigators to Burns. It’s one of the first cases of its kind in the country to go to trial.

After four decades, family and friends of Michelle Martinko got the answer they had been waiting to hear: guilty.

Janelle Stonebraker, Michelle’s older sister by twelve years, attended each day of the trial along with her husband John. As the verdict was handed down, they hugged and grew emotional, reaching out to the family and friends who had come to support them during the trial.

Outside of the Scott County Courthouse, the Stonebrakers told reporters that after 40 years it was a relief to finally have confirmation on who killed Michelle, who was the flower girl in their wedding.

“I am so pleased that we have the answers to this because so many people were accused and so many theories were out there and to finally have the closure on this and to actually know…we don’t know exactly the whys and some of the details but we definitely know how it…who did it. And that was terribly important to us,” she said. “I wish my parents could be here to see this.”

"Even when everyone else had lost hope, [Cedar Rapids police officers] kept working on it and I think that's absolutely amazing." - Janelle Stonebraker, sister of Michelle Martinko

Jurors in the case returned the verdict the same day they heard closing arguments, reaching a unanimous conclusion in a matter of hours. Judge Fae Hover said she’ll schedule a sentencing hearing in about six weeks. Burns now faces the possibility of life in prison.

After the verdict, prosecutor Nick Maybanks said that relatively quick period of deliberation speaks to the key role DNA evidence played in the case, and how conclusive he said it was. DNA consistent with Burns' was found in two places at the crime scene.

“I like to think they saw the case for what it was. It was clear the DNA evidence was definitely irrefutable,” Maybanks said. “We had hoped it would be clear to them and it does appear that it was.”

Burns’ defense attorney Leon Spies declined to talk to reporters following the ruling.

In December of 1979, 18-year-old Martinko was a senior at Kennedy High School who was looking forward to the next phase of her life, and planned to attend Iowa State University to study interior design. Friends who knew her testified she was active in high school choir, that she was friendly, kind, mature, loyal and beautiful. With a signature Farrah Fawcett-style flip, it was hard to “not have seen her," as an ex-boyfriend testified.

Martinko’s life ended abruptly and violently. After a visit to the Westdale Mall in the week before Christmas, 1979, Martinko was stabbed to death in her parents’ car. In the early hours of December 20, a Cedar Rapids police officer found Martinko’s body in the family Buick in the mall parking lot.

An autopsy would later show she had suffered 29 wounds, including 11 stab wounds, and some defensive wounds to her hands and arms, indications that she put up a fight against her assailant.

With no murder weapon and no clear motive, Martinko’s killing stunned Cedar Rapids residents, haunted her family and friends, and remained unsolved for decades. Cedar Rapids police investigators testified that officers were always working the case at some level and that it was never closed, but the trail went cold, until the advent of forensic DNA analysis.

At the time of the crime, investigators testified that they took great to care to collect and preserve evidence from the scene, including Martinko’s clothing and parts of the car where she was killed. Decades after she died, the black dress she wore and the gear shifter from the Buick would become key pieces of evidence in the case, once forensic DNA technology became sophisticated enough to develop genetic profiles from the evidence.

In the early 2000s, analysts at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation working the case were able to do just that. After CRPD investigators requested additional testing of evidence, criminalist Linda Sawer was able to develop a male genetic profile from blood found on the gear shift selector and from a bloodstain found on Martinko’s black dress. While the profile from the gear shifter is less complete, the male profiles are consistent with each other.

In recent years, investigators took the profile from the dress to the private firm Parabon NanoLabs, which developed a digital illustration of what the suspect might have looked like. They also uploaded the profile to the public family genealogy website GEDmatch, where they found a second cousin once removed of the suspect, Brandy Jennings of Vancouver, Washington. After lab analysts developed a prospective family tree of the suspect, investigators were able to focus their search to three brothers: Donald, Kenneth and Jerry Burns.

"I like to think [jurors] saw the case for what it was. It was clear the DNA evidence was definitely irrefutable [...] we had hoped it would be clear to them and it does appear that it was." - Prosecutor Nick Maybanks

There have been a handful of high profile cases in recent years to identify suspects using family genealogy websites, and this case is one of the first like it to go trial. The ruling comes as some lawmakers in other states are considering limiting law enforcement access to these websites, due to privacy concerns.

In 2018, CRPD officers led by investigator Matt Denlinger then tracked the brothers in order to covertly collect DNA samples from them, including a straw that Jerry Burns had used at a Pizza Ranch in Manchester, where he lived.

When analyzed by DCI criminalist Michael Schmit, Burns’ DNA was found to be consistent with the male genetic profile from Martinko’s dress. Schmit testified that the finding was a significant break in the case.

After testing scores of samples from dozens of other potential suspects, Schmit said seeing Burns’ genetic markers match up felt like “science fiction." He testified that the results were so conclusive that “the probability of finding this profile in a population of unrelated individuals chosen at random would be less than one out of a hundred billion."

When investigators went to interview Burns in Manchester on December 19, 2018, exactly 39 years after Martinko was killed, they took a cheek swab from Burns to confirm the results, which were ultimately found to be consistent with the crime scene profile. At the time, Denlinger told Burns that they were hoping to confirm what they already knew, that DNA consistent with Burns’ was found at the scene of the crime.

While Burns said he did not know Martinko and was not there when she died, investigator Denlinger testified that Burns never fully denied killing her.

In a covert video of the interview, Burns instead repeatedly tells Denlinger 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.

At closing arguments on Monday, the defense attorney Spies didn’t contest that DNA consistent with Burns’ was found at the crime scene. But he argued there was a realm of possibilities for why the DNA could be found there, sketching out different overlapping and intersecting trails of DNA that individuals could have left in the mall in 1979.

"You can't find what you don't look for. And that evidence was not looked for." Leon Spies, defense attorney for Jerry Burns

He posited that Burns’ genetic material could have been transferred to Martinko’s dress and the car in some other way, implying that perhaps skin cells he had left at the mall from a prior visit were picked up by her.

And he argued that investigators and analysts should have done further testing to see if there were more male genetic profiles at the crime scene.

“You can’t find what you don’t look for. And that evidence was not looked for,” Spies said, arguing to the jury that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence. “It’s our belief that the lack and failure of important items of evidence in this case are critical to your consideration of Jerry Burns and his guilt.”

Prosecutor Nick Maybanks for his part has repeatedly called the evidence his team has presented “irrefutable." He countered Spies’ arguments as “nonsense," saying the only “reasonable” explanation for why Burns’ DNA would be found at the crime scene is because he killed Martinko, cutting himself in the process.

“By presenting a realm of possibilities, a world of an imagination, the defense wants you to rewrite the history of this case. The state says, ‘you shouldn’t have to do that.' You shouldn’t have to rewrite the history based on guessing what happened when the evidence is right in front of you and shows what happened,” Maybanks said. “The only scenario that would result in his blood and his DNA being on Michelle Martinko’s dress is that he killed her.”

Outside the courthouse, Janelle Stonebraker said she’s thankful to the Cedar Rapids police officers who dedicated themselves to the case for decades, and were able to preserve crime scene DNA to be used with future technologies none of them imagined back in 1979.

“Had they not collected that evidence early on and put it away for some later date when we had no idea what was going to be used with the DNA at that time, that really is amazing after 40 years,” Stonebraker said. “Even when everyone else had lost hope, they kept working on it and I think that’s absolutely amazing.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter