DAVENPORT, Iowa – Opening statements took place Wednesday in a Scott County courtroom for the trial of Jerry Burns, who is accused of killing a Cedar Rapids woman more than 40 years ago.
Michelle Martinko was killed back in 1979 when she was 18 years old. She was stabbed in her parent’s car outside the Westdale Mall. Police arrested Jerry Burns back in 2018 after investigators say they matched his DNA to the crime scene. Authorities say they collected a straw Burns used and connected DNA on it to blood on the coat Martinko wore the night she was killed.
His trial was moved to Scott County because of publicity.
The trial has gained national coverage and media outlets from all over the country have traveled to Davenport for a case that went cold for 40 years. About 8 statewide outlets and 2 national outlets, including Dateline, will be in the Scott County courthouse everyday for the next few weeks.
It’s gaining high media coverage because the trial could be one of the first high-profile cases based on information uploaded to Ancestry.com.
“When it takes you 40 years to make an arrest, it doesn’t matter where you are, people are going to be interested in that,” says Aaron Scheinblum, a reporter with KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids.
Scheinblum wasn’t alive when the murder took place, but he’s covering it for KCRG the next few weeks.
Burns was arrested two years ago after a DNA sample connected him to Martinko’s murder. Investigators say they were able to do draw this conclusion after Burns’ cousin uploaded information to a database from an Ancestry.com account.
“DNA forensic analysis eventually led to the answer that evaded investigators for years,” says Nick Maybanks, Assistant Linn County Attorney in his opening statement to the jury. “In other words, the probability of finding this profile will be less than one in a billion.”
The connection was made decades later with modern technology that didn’t exist until recently. But the defense claims Burns is an innocent man and this accusation is random.
“The likelihood of the intersection of trails of complete strangers, demonstrate that the trails do not inevitable lead to Jerry Lynn Burns,” says Burns’ defense attorney, Leon Spies.
“When you’re in court for two weeks at least and you have the responsibility to cover all the facts that happened in an eight-hour span in one day … you got to be honest and treat the facts the way they are,” says Scheinblum.
Some media outlets are staying in town for the duration of the trial, while others will be making the trip from Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Iowa City each day.