What do we know about Michelle Martinko and the arrest that re-opened the 40 years old cold case? Four decades ago, 18-year-old Michelle Marie Martinko was found stabbed to death in the family’s car in the parking lot of a Cedar Rapids mall.

Exactly 39 years after her death, police took a Manchester man into custody after matching his DNA to blood found at the crime scene. Jerry Lynn Burns, 65, faced a jury in February 2020, bringing momentum to the case that was left unsolved for years.

Let’s go into the details of this famous cold case and its adjudication.

Case History of Michelle Martinko Murder Case

Michelle Martinko’s dead body was found by the police in her parents’ tan 1972 Buick at Cedar Rapids’ Westdale Mall parking lot around 4 am on 20th December, 1979. The Kennedy High School senior had driven to the mall after a school choir banquet to shop for a new winter coat. 

Martinko had been stabbed brutally 29 times in her face, neck, and chest. Her hands bore defensive wounds, which police said to indicate that she had fought back against her killer. Police determined from the lack of blood outside the car that Martinko had been killed while in the car, and the medical examiner later estimated she had died between 8 and 10 Pm. 

The murder weapon was “sharp-pointed” but not definitively a knife, and the medical examiner could not determine its size. The killer left no fingerprints, which led police to believe they had worn gloves. A police spokesman said that “everyone’s instinct is to say it was a guy“, but they were not sure of the gender of the killer.

Based on cash found in Martinko’s purse, police concluded that she had not been robbed. She was fully dressed, and the medical examiner determined she had not been sexually assaulted. Police considered the killing to be “personal in nature” based on the number and location of stab wounds.

Michelle Martinko’s Murder Investigation

A police spokesman estimated that in the week after Martinko’s murder, more than 200 people responded to the detectives’ appeals in the news for information concerning the case.

Police interviewed numerous people, and several of them were cleared of suspicion through the use of a polygraph. Rumors began to circulate about the crime. Some thought that Martinko had received harassing phone calls before her death, but police stated that they did not think so.

On June 19, 1980, police released a composite sketch, developed based on descriptions provided by two witnesses, of the man they believed stabbed Martinko. The sketch indicated a white man in his late teens or early 20s, weighing between 165 and 175 pounds, and standing about 6 feet tall.

Re-Investigation Based on DNA Evidence

In 2006, 27 years after Martinko’s killing, a new cold case investigator working for the Cedar Rapids Police Department became the Investigator of this case. He discovered what he believed to be the killer’s blood while he was reviewing the case files. From that, police were able to build a partial DNA profile.

The results of the test for partial DNA were entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national DNA database, but no matches were found. Eventually, more than 125 people would have their DNA swabbed and compared against samples taken from the scene. Out of more than 80 potential suspects that had been identified over the years, more than 60 people were tested and cleared of suspicion.

In 2017, a company specializing in DNA phenotyping was hired to create additional images of the killer based solely on DNA clues about facial appearance and ancestry. The images looked considerably different from the 1980 composite sketch and showed a man with blond hair and blue eyes.

The company also produced approximations of how the man would have aged in the years since the crime. In a press conference during which the new image was shared, a former classmate of Martinko exclaimed that the face looked like another one of their classmates, but that classmate had been investigated and was cleared based on a DNA swab several years before.

In 2018, the DNA phenotyping company took the data they had collected the year before and entered it into GEDmatch, a public genealogy website that has been used by law enforcement to solve other cold cases, most famously that of the Golden State Killer.

GEDmatch returned one person who shared DNA markers with the suspect in Martinko’s murder, and it determined her to be likely the killer’s second cousin once removed. The company created a family tree starting with four sets of the woman’s great-great-grandparents and reported that the killer was most likely descended from one of those couples.

An investigator with the Cedar Rapids police department contacted DNA-tested members of two of the branches of the family tree, and eliminated those branches as containing the killer. He then contacted a member of a third branch, and a DNA test determined that they were first cousins with the killer.

That narrowed the suspects down to a set of three brothers, who had grown up in Manchester, Iowa. The brothers were placed under surveillance, and investigators began to attempt to collect their DNA secretly.

Arrest of Jerry lynn Burns

On October 29, 2018, an investigator observed one of the brothers, Jerry Lynn Burns, drink multiple sodas using a plastic straw. When Burns disposed of the straw, the investigator collected it and tested it for DNA. Tests eliminated the other two brothers as suspects, but the DNA from Burns’ straw matched the blood found on Martinko’s clothing.

On December 19, 2018, investigators went to Burns’ business in Manchester, Iowa to interview him. He refused to voluntarily provide a sample of DNA, but was compelled to do so with a search warrant. His hands and arms were also examined for scars possibly left by the assumed cut sustained during the attack. Burns maintained that he did not know Martinko and was not there when she died, although an investigator later testified that Burns did not specifically deny killing Martinko.

He was not able to provide an explanation for why his DNA would have been present at the crime scene. According to the investigator, “Burns showed almost no emotion during the interview, even when he was eventually told he was being arrested.

When asked if he had killed someone that night in 1979, Burns repeatedly told investigators, “Test the DNA”. When the DNA sample was tested, it matched the blood sample found at the crime scene.

On December 19, 2018, exactly 39 years after Martinko’s murder, Burns was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty. His trial was originally scheduled for October 14, 2019, but in September the defense requested a delay in order to gather more evidence and interview witnesses.

The defense also requested the trial be moved out of Linn County. The prosecution did not resist either request, and the trial was rescheduled for February 10, 2020, in Scott County.

Trial & Conviction

The murder trial began on February 12, 2020. The prosecution emphasized the unlikelihood of the DNA evidence matching someone other than the person who left it at the scene. The doctor who performed Martinko’s autopsy and investigators in the original case, took the stand to testify to how the investigation was conducted, and to Martinko’s cause of death.

The defense argued that DNA evidence had been mishandled and that different articles of clothing from the scene should not have been stored together in one evidence bag. Prosecutors also played a video of a police interview of Burns, in which he denied being at the crime scene on the night of Martinko’s murder, and could not explain how his DNA had been found at the scene. They also played a later recording, after Burns’ arrest, in which Burns questioned whether he could have blocked out the memory of committing the crime.

The defense brought only one witness, a self-described forensic DNA consultant, who testified on the possibility that police could have mishandled the evidence. He stated that Burns’ DNA could have been at the scene due to secondary transfer (such as skin cells transferring to an article of clothing when someone brushes up against another person), although he clarified that it was not his opinion that this was the case with Burns’ DNA.

Prosecutors called a criminalist to contradict the defense’s witness; the criminalist said that the storage of Martinko’s clothing was not unusual.

On February 24, 2020, after three hours of deliberation, the jury found Jerry Lynn Burns guilty of first-degree murder of Michelle Martinko. Iowan law mandates a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.

On May 29, 2020, Burns’ attorneys filed a motion asking for a new trial, claiming his constitutional and state rights were violated and that the court made a mistake in overruling the request for evidence to be suppressed. Finally, on August 7, 2020, Burns was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In September 2020, Burns filed a notice of appeal.

Burns is currently imprisoned in the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Categories: Case Studies


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