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Investigators explain how they matched DNA to connect alleged killer to decades-old Cedar Rapids cold case

Jerry Burns walks into the courtroom on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. Burns was back in court for a suppression hearing. (Marlon Hall/KCRG)
Jerry Burns walks into the courtroom on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. Burns was back in court for a suppression hearing. (Marlon Hall/KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: Jan. 10, 2020 at 4:07 PM CST
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The man accused of killing a Cedar Rapids woman 40 years ago was back in court Friday for a hearing to suppress evidence.

The defense team for 65-year-old Jerry Burns of Manchester wants key DNA evidence thrown out of the case, arguing investigators did not have a warrant to obtain it.

Burns plead not guilty to first-degree murder in December 2018. His trial is set to begin next month in Scott County. Investigators say he killed Michelle Martinko in December 1979. They say Burns stabbed Martinko in her parents' car in the parking lot of the Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids.

In a brief hearing Friday morning, investigators explained how they obtained the DNA from a straw Burns used at a restaurant, arguing they did not need a warrant to get it.

It was a condensed court session Friday, lasting only about 90 minutes. For most of that time, Cedar Rapids Police investigator Matthew Denlinger answered questions about his knowledge about the case into Jerry Burns. Denlinger has been working on the case since 2015.

"As we got new leads and new people identified, I would go collect buccal swabs from them also," Denlinger said. "And then we would send those to the [Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations] lab, and then they would do the one-to-one comparisons with our known sample."

Denlinger said out of about 125 potential suspects, all of them were no longer persons of interest once they were shown a DNA profile found through a database, similar to Ancestry.com.

"Once you're on Ancestry.com, there are people on there that don't have the family tree visible," Denlinger said. "So I assume they don't want to share it with people, they're just doing it for their own benefit. Maybe they show family or who knows. But there's lots of people that just put it on there."

Investigators eventually narrowed it down to Burns and his two brothers. Investigators later followed Burns to Pizza Ranch in Manchester for lunch, sat down in the booth next to him, and waited for him to leave.

"After they got done eating, they got up, you pay before you eat at Pizza Ranch, so they just got up and walked out and went and got in their vehicle and left," Denlinger said. "At that time I went up and grabbed the cup that Jerry had been drinking out of. Brought it back to our table, and we packaged the straw up right there at the table, took it, sent it to the DCI lab."

Denlinger said because the straw Burns used at the restaurant was now considered disposed, they would not need a warrant to take it. And DCI said because of that straw, they had found a DNA match from the blood found in Martinko's car in 1979.

"I called them up, I said 'hey, give me some clarification, because I'm interpreting this as a match," Denlinger said. "Am I correct?' And they said: 'yes, it's a match.'"

The defense team for Burns has not had a chance to call and cross-examine witnesses that already took the stand. Friday's hearing was cut short due to scheduling conflicts. The court will schedule a second hearing sometime next week.

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