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Burns Sentenced To Life In Prison For Martinko Murder, Plans To Appeal

021320_MichelleMartinko.jpg
Cedar Rapids Police
Jerry Burns has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Michelle Martinko, whose killing remained unsolved for decades until the advent of investigative DNA technology.

Jerry Lynn Burns has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1979 murder of Cedar Rapids high schooler Michelle Martinko. The sentence, delivered in a Cedar Rapids courtroom on Friday, brings closure to her family, and a sense of finality to the case, which remained unsolved for decades until the advent of forensic DNA technology and online family genealogy sleuthing led investigators to Burns.

The killing of 18-year old Martinko, who was found stabbed to death in a car in the parking lot of the Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids the week before Christmas of 1979, haunted the community and left her family “under a shadow without answers” for 39 years, until the arrest of Burns in December of 2018.

In a video statement to the court Friday, John Stonebraker, the husband of Martinko’s sister Janelle, said her murder devastated her parents in particular, who died without knowing what happened to their daughter. The rest of family can find healing in the life sentence, he said.

"He receives a grander mercy from the faceless State of Iowa that Michelle did not. But he will die a little bit every day, and in his long nights to come. And there is some justice in that.”
- John Stonebraker, brother in law of Michelle Martinko

“Mr. Burns will soon board a state van and be removed from civilized society, excised from all of us like an oozing wound. We are cleansed by his absence. And the remaining members of Michelle’s family and loved ones are healed by the knowledge that he will never walk free again,” Stonebraker said.

Emerging DNA analytics and the controversial use of family genealogy websites helped officers track down Burns, who had lived out his life just an hour’s drive from the crime scene, raising a family and even running his own businesses in Manchester.

Ultimately it was DNA evidence that cracked the case: a shred of genetic material the suspect left in a blood stain on the dress Martinko was wearing when she died that was able to sequenced, compared to millions of others, and finally determined to be consistent with Burns’ own DNA.

In vigorously fighting off her attacker and causing him to cut himself and leave his DNA behind, Stonebraker said that Martinko became “her own best witness," and played a critical role in solving her own murder, which prosecutors described at trial as a “random act of violence committed by a stranger."

In court Friday, prosecutor Nick Maybanks, First Assistant Linn County Attorney, said the murder has haunted the community for decades.

“This is the type of crime that’s so heinous and senseless that it’s an assault, not only on Ms. Martinko, but on our very human nature. This is the type of crime that makes us all collectively ask, ‘Why? Why did it have to happen?’ Even though we know that there is no answer to that that would ever be acceptable,” Maybanks said.

Burns maintained his innocence at court Friday, making a brief statement denying he committed the murder, and thanking his family.

"It is our hope that the justice system that brings us here today, will in time bring him back for a new trial."
- Leon Spies, attorney for Jerry Burns

“First of all, I’d like to say that somebody else stabbed Michelle to death in that car that night. I don’t know who. I don’t know why,” Burns said. “And I would like to thank my family and friends for their support.”

Burns had petitioned the court for a new trial, through his attorney Leon Spies, a request Judge Fae Hoover-Grinde denied Friday. Spies argued that his client still deserves another chance to defend himself.

“There’s another family in this courtroom today whose lives have been changed, Mr. Burns’ family, who remain resolute, supportive, committed, in his innocence. It is our hope that the justice system that brings us here today, will in time bring him back for a new trial,” Spies said.

Spies told IPR his client intends to file an appeal. He has 30 days to do so.

In the meantime, Stonebraker said he and his family have made their peace with the fact that under state law, Burns cannot be sentenced to death. Short of that, he said that justice will have been served in Burns spending the rest of his life in prison.

“Thanks to the humanity, wisdom and mercy of the people of Iowa, Mr. Burns cannot be put to death for what he did. We are at peace with that,” Stonebraker said. “He receives a grander mercy from the faceless State of Iowa that Michelle did not. But he will die a little bit every day, and in his long nights to come. And there is some justice in that.”