Jurors heard opening arguments at the Scott County Courthouse Wednesday in the case of a man accused of killing a Cedar Rapids high school student more than forty years ago. Jerry Lynn Burns faces a first degree murder charge in the 1979 killing of 18 year old Michelle Martinko, a killing that stunned Cedar Rapids residents and has been seared into the memories of some for decades.
The long-idle cold case was revived in recent years when investigators turned to newly-developed techniques for DNA analysis. That forty-year old evidence now forms the foundation of the case against Burns.
Over the course of the next two weeks or so, prosecutors are encouraging a jury of nine women and six men, including three alternates, to “go on a journey back in time” to the year 1979, to a time when Farrah Fawcett-style blowouts were all the rage and a brand-new mall was enough to capture the interest of throngs of Cedar Rapids teenagers on a winter night.
It was there at the newly-opened Westdale Mall during the week before Christmas that Kennedy High School student Michelle Martinko was last seen alive. Early on the morning of December 20, she was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick in the mall parking lot.
Curtis Thomas was one of the last people to see Martinko that night, strolling the mall with her during a break from his work shift at a clothing store. A former classmate of hers, Thomas recounted their last conversation on the witness stand Wednesday, recalling his memories of walking her to a mall exit and telling her good night, her family Buick parked in the lot outside. It’s a night that he says he has never forgotten.
“There’s huge blocks of it that I see so clearly in my mind, and it hasn’t been colored, it hasn’t been exaggerated at all. I remember that night. I remember Michelle, her smile…the goodbye smile,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s affected my entire life.”
In court on Wednesday, a series of friends, acquaintances and an ex-boyfriend recounted her final hours, and described Martinko as someone who was loyal, friendly and kind, with a keen fashion sense, who was often seen in a signature rabbit fur coat. Prosecutor Nick Maybanks described her to the jury as a “girl about town”.
“For a brief period of time in this trial, Michelle will be brought back to life for you to understand what kind of person she was,” Maybanks said. “Michelle Martinko, forever 18.”
Prosecutors hope to prove that it was now-66 year old Jerry Burns who killed Martinko in 1979. Investigators have not established any relationship or clear connection between the 18 year old and Burns, a lifelong Manchester resident who was 25 at the time of the killing.
But prosecutors argued the killing was carefully planned and premeditated, with indications the killer took care to wipe away their own fingerprints, but missing splatters of their own blood, which were preserved as evidence for forty years. What investigators say the killer did not account for was the genetic “footprint” they were leaving behind at the scene of the crime, and the phenomenal power that forensic DNA analysis would wield decades in the future.
“The evidence will show that DNA is literally what makes us who we are,” Maybanks said. “You will hear that DNA is what separates us from each other. Our blueprint in the vast universe in which we live. The evidence will show that our DNA is our blueprint, evidence of our own existence, often at a certain place in time.”
Prosecutors say it is DNA that connects Burns and Martinko, genetic material they say that matches blood found on the gear shift of Martinko’s car and on the dress she was wearing the night she died.
Demonstrating if the genetic material found at the crime scene is indeed Burns’, and how it ended up there, is critical to the case.
Investigators say analysts developed a genetic profile from the DNA found in Martinko’s car, and uploaded it to the family genealogy website GEDmatch, where they were able to locate somewhat distant genetic relatives. They were then able to narrow down their pool of subjects until they found Burns.
To confirm their theory, Cedar Rapids police officers covertly collected DNA from Burns by tracking him down and picking up a cup he left behind after eating a meal at a Pizza Ranch.
Based on the lab analysis of that sample, prosecutors say that statistically, there is no one else on earth who would be a genetic match for the blood found at the scene.
“The evidence will show, in other words, the probability of finding this profile in a population of unrelated individuals chosen at random would be less than one in one hundred billion,” Maybanks said. “In other words, they found their guy.”
Burns has pleaded not guilty, and has said he didn’t know Martinko and wasn’t at the Westdale Mall that night, though he couldn’t explain why his DNA would be found at the crime scene.
Arguing in court Wednesday, defense attorney Leon Spies worked to cast doubt on the DNA analysis and the “dramatic statistics” he said jurors may hear in the case.
“Those statistics, men and women of the jury, are only as accurate as the investigation on which they are founded,” Spies said. “They’re only as accurate as the integrity of that investigation, the consistency and the care with which the items that that DNA was collected from were handled throughout the course of the past forty years.”
People leave DNA evidence everywhere they go, charting constantly changing and overlapping trails of genetic evidence, Spies said. But those paths may not necessarily be conclusive, he argued.
“Those divergent paths, I repeat, do not inevitably lead to Jerry Lynn Burns,” he said.