Jerry Burns sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Michelle Martinko in 1979

Jerry Burns sitting with his attorney Leon Spies during the Aug. 7 sentencing hearing. — screengrab from KCRG livestream

Jerry Burns, the man convicted earlier this year of first-degree murder in the 1979 killing of Michelle Martinko, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, in addition to paying $150,000 in restitution to the Martinko family. His request for a new trial was also denied on Friday.

“This moment has finally came for the community and for Mr. Burns. Today’s his moment of reckoning, but today it’s also the moment of the long-awaited resting in peace for Michelle,” Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said during Friday’s sentencing hearing.

“The verdict and the sentence now that you are about to impose, the state believes, will give closure and peace to the family and many friends of Michelle Martinko that have longed for justice for her for four decades, and it also will provide enormous relief for our community.”

Martinko, a senior at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, was stabbed to death on Dec. 19, 1979. Police found her body inside the family’s 1972 tan Buick parked in the Westdale Mall parking lot. She had been stabbed more than 20 times in the face, neck and chest.

Michelle Martinko. — courtesy of Robert Riley

The case was cold for decades. It wasn’t until advances in DNA technology and genetic genealogy that the Cedar Rapids Police Department started to get leads. GEDmatch, a public genealogy database, helped investigators eventually match the DNA found on the Buick’s gear shift and the back of Martinko’s dress to Burns.

Burns was arrested on Dec. 19, 2018 — the 39th anniversary of Martinko’s death. During a press conference announcing the arrest, Police Chief Wayne Jerman said the “tragic case that’s been haunting this community” can finally be closed.

The two-week trial, which began in February, was moved to Scott County District Court because of pretrial publicity. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding Burns guilty of first-degree murder on Feb. 24.

The sentencing hearing was originally scheduled for April 17 but got delayed twice due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of Friday’s sentencing hearing, Burns’ attorney Leon Spies argued for a new trial. He cited newly discovered evidence among the reasons for why Burns should be granted a new trial.

Spies said a woman recalls giving Martinko organ lessons at a studio in Westdale Mall that were scheduled regularly, including on the night Martinko was killed. Spies claimed this demonstrates that whoever killed Martinko “knew her actions, knew her routine.” He added that she would have been carrying music books, but these were never located.

“We believe that this evidence, had it been presented to the jury, would have demonstrated that there were actions that Ms. Martinko took the night of her death different than those described by the witnesses brought by the prosecution,” Spies said. “… We believe this evidence is germane. It’s important, and had it been brought to the jury’s attention, it would cast doubt on the theory of the government that Mr. Burns traveled from Manchester, Iowa to the Westdale Mall, armed with rubber gloves and a knife and inflicted the fatal injuries on someone he had no knowledge of.”

Maybanks said the focus on the books is a “red herring” and that the defense can’t claim it would have resulted in a different verdict.

“The state fails to follow the logic that somehow given those circumstances that a couple of missing music books would have been a bombshell that would have changed the outcome of this case,” Maybanks said.

During investigations, Martinko’s family and friends had not mentioned anything about music lessons, Maybanks said. He claimed that during an investigation in the last 24 hours, Martinko’s family said she was not taking organ lessons at the time and the family did not have an organ at the house.

District Court Judge Fae Hoover-Grinde denied the motion for a new trial prior to moving on to the sentencing portion of the hearing.

Before receiving his sentence, Burns had the opportunity to address Hoover-Grinde. During his short remarks, Burns maintained his innocence.

“Your Honor, 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. And I would like to thank my family and friends for their support. Thank you.”

A recorded message was played from Janelle and John Stonebraker, Martinko’s sister and brother-in-law who now live in Florida. Janelle and John are Martinko’s only living immediate family members. Her parents, Albert and Janet, died in 1995 and 1998, respectively, without knowing who murdered their daughter.

“Our family’s spent 39 Christmases under a shadow without answers, a shadow that never left,” John Stonebraker said as he started reading his remarks. He spent the next 10 minutes expressing the pain the family experienced over the last four decades and his gratitude to the Linn County prosecution team and support staff, Cedar Rapids Police Department and the people of Cedar Rapids.

“Janelle and I are comforted, and we can all be comforted, by the fact that if it wasn’t Michelle that night, it would have been some other young woman, and that young woman is surely alive today,” John said.

“We’re thankful that she fought so hard. Michelle played a critical role in identifying her own killer. The defensive wounds on her hands show it. She fought so hard that she was able to deflect the killer’s knife so that he stabbed himself, leaving the blood that caught him. In a very real way, Michelle became her own best witness.”

Hoover-Grinde told Burns he will be transported from the Linn County Jail to the Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility when there is bed space available. Hoover-Grinde said Burns has 30 days to file an appeal if he chooses to.

Martinko’s case will be the subject of an episode of the true-crime series On the Case with Paula Zahn Sunday at 9 p.m central time on Investigation Discovery. The episode is titled “A Test of Patience.”

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