The mystery of who killed Michelle Martinko, an 18-year-old Kennedy High School student stabbed to death outside of Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids, has haunted Iowans for 40 years.
Her body was found in the family Buick in the mall parking lot in the early morning hours of Dec. 20, 1979. She was last seen as the mall closed on Dec. 19, after attending a concert choir banquet and then going to Westdale.
Exactly 39 years later, on Dec. 19, 2018, police arrested Jerry Lynn Burns, 64, a Manchester man whose DNA authorities say matched evidence taken from the crime scene.
His first-degree murder trial began this week in Scott County, where the case was moved due to pre-trial publicity.
On Feb. 12, 2020, First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said the trial will take the jury on a journey back in time to 1979.
Maybanks said a blood stain from Martinko’s dress and a blood scraping from the gear shift of the car were submitted as evidence in 1979. Once science caught up to the evidence collected, more than 125 suspects were eliminated with the DNA profile, he said during opening statements.
Working with Parabon NanoLabs of Virginia for DNA phenotyping and “kinship analysis” using DNA samples, genetic genealogy narrowed the suspects to three brothers: Donald Burns, Kenneth Burns and Jerry Burns. On Oct. 29, 2018, an investigator collected a straw used by Jerry Burns at a Pizza Ranch and sent it to the crime lab in Ankeny.
“The male DNA profile from Michelle’s dress revealed an outstanding development,” Maybanks said, adding that the two other brothers were eliminated as suspects.
“The science led investigators to one man, the defendant,” he said, citing the probability at less than one in 100 billion that an individual would have the same DNA profile. “In other words, they found their guy.”
Several witnesses were called, including friends who had seen Martinko at the mall the night of her death and an ex-boyfriend who remained friends with her. All described her as friendly and kind, even to people she didn’t know.
That night, she was “dressed to the hilt” in a black dress, high heels and a calico rabbit fur coat, Maybanks said. Westdale Mall had just recently opened in southwest Cedar Rapids and was crowded with Christmas shoppers.
“For a brief period of time, Michelle will be brought back to life,” Maybanks told the jury. “They still hold vivid and tragic memories of her from that night.”
Perhaps answering one of the most pondered questions, of whether or not Martinko and Burns knew each other, Maybanks noted that the murder was not driven by greed, retaliation or knowledge of the victim.
“This was a random act of violence committed by a stranger. This will explain why it took 40 years and DNA to solve,” Maybanks said, noting that Burns was working as a salesman in Elkader at the time. “This wasn’t an ex, this wasn’t a suitor, this wasn’t anyone she knew. It was the random guy.”
“This is why no connection was developed between the defendant and Miss Martinko,” he continued. “This will show why the defendant wasn’t on the radar of law enforcement.”
Defense attorney Leon Spies, representing Burns, told the jury that in everyday acts, such as shaking hands with someone or opening a door, a DNA trail is left behind, intersecting with trails left behind by others.
Spies agreed that Martinko should not have been killed.
“There was no reason for her to die,” he said. “There was no reason for violence to be inflicted upon her.”
Diversion of evidence led investigators to question Burns in the case, Spies said, adding that in 1979, Burns was a married man, living with his wife and two children in Manchester.
He questioned the consistency in which the evidence was handled over the years. A forensic scientist will be called by the defense to explain the numbers involved in DNA evidence and explain that “the handling of evidence and the likelihood of intersection of trails of complete strangers do not inevitably lead to Jerry Lynn Burns,” he said, and that “Jerry Lynn Burns is not guilty of the killing of Michelle Martinko.”
Stab wounds penetrated her lungs and pierced her aorta, above her heart, with a significant amount of force necessary to inflict the injuries, Maybanks said, adding that Martinko bled to death.
“In the end,” he said, “the state submits to you that this case centers around what happened to this young lady, Michelle Martinko, forever 18.”