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Trial in high school girl's murder 40 years ago in Iowa has blood evidence at forefront

Michelle Martinko, 18, disappeared on Dec. 19, 1979. Her body was found the next day inside her family's car at a local mall.

DAVENPORT, Iowa — A prosecutor told jurors on the opening day of a cold case murder trial that they were going on a journey back in time to learn about an Iowa high school girl who was slain more than 40 years ago.

Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester, Iowa. He's accused of fatally stabbing 18-year-old Michelle Martinko on Dec. 19, 1979, in Cedar Rapids. Her body was found the next day inside her family's car at a Cedar Rapids mall.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Nick Maybanks revealed a few more details about the crime. Martinko had been stabbed several times. Her lungs and aorta were pierced and she lost about a third of her blood, Maybanks said.

Image: Jerry Burns and Michelle Martinko.
Jerry Burns and Michelle Martinko.Cedar Rapids Police Department

Blood found on Martinko's dress showed her killer had been cut as well, Maybanks said.

Court documents say investigators created DNA profiles from the blood found at the scene. Cedar Rapids police then used DNA genetic genealogical research to create a specific pool of suspects, which included Burns. Investigators have said they arrested Burns after DNA taken a restaurant straw he'd discarded matched the crime scene DNA.

Defense attorney Leon Spies said DNA doesn't tell the whole story. Evidence will show Burns isn't guilty of first-degree murder, he told jurors.

Cedar Rapids resident Tracy Price took the stand and said he'd known Martinko since elementary school. He and three friends were going to see a movie, “The Jerk,” that night but first went to the mall about 7 p.m. They ran into Martinko, who told them she was there to pick up a coat she'd bought.

The trial was moved to Scott County District Court in Davenport because of pretrial publicity in Cedar Rapids.

Testimony was expected to continue Thursday.