DNA Collected Without Warrant Challenged in Iowa Supreme Court Case

The use of Forensic Genetics Genealogy to solve cold cases is still a controversial topic. In this case, the debate pertains to the collection of a suspect’s DNA on a discarded straw (without a warrant); and subsequent use of that DNA to build a genealogy profile that produced a narrow suspect pool, and ultimately identified the murderer whose DNA matched the blood found on the victim’s clothing.

Defining the Legal Argument: On March 30, 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amici curiae brief in support of the defendant in the case of the State of Iowa (appellee) v. Jerry Lynn Burns (defendant-appellant), which is before the Iowa Supreme Court. (Supreme Court No. 20-1150).

The organizations filing the brief contend that the collection of Mr. Burn’s DNA without a warrant from a discarded straw he used at a restaurant violated the Fourth Amendment, and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. They argue that Mr. Burns may have abandoned the straw that police seized, but in no meaningful sense did he knowingly or voluntarily abandon the copy of his genetic code unavoidably deposited on that straw. Further, their argument is that DNA contains a person’s most private and personal information, and people cannot avoid shedding it wherever they go about their daily lives. Therefore, extracting an individual’s genetic material and generating a DNA profile from it intrudes on privacy and proprietary interests under the Fourth Amendment. People have a reasonable expectation of privacy of their DNA.

Precedent Case Law: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy in garbage left out for collection because they have knowingly exposed their trash to any member of the public. California v. Greenwood, 486 US 35, 40 (1988). The Supreme Court has similarly held that people have no Fourth Amendment privacy or property interest in items they knowingly abandon, for instant no warrant is required for police to seize items a suspect left behind in a hotel room after checking out. The principle from these cases is referred to as the “abandonment doctrine.”

Solving a 1979 Cold Case: The DNA from Jerry Lynn Burns’ straw was extracted and sequenced for criminal investigative purposes in the four decades old cold case involving the stabbing death of 18-year-old Michelle Marie Martinko. She was found murdered in her family’s car on Dec. 20, 1979, in the parking lot of a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, mall. The senior high school student had driven to the mall after a school choir banquet to shop for a new winter coat.

The medical examiner’s report revealed Martinko had been stabbed 21 times in the face, neck and chest. Investigators said the suspect who stabbed Martinko cut their hand and left behind blood on the victim’s clothes and vehicle’s gear shift knob.

Forensic DNA Genealogy: In 2018, DNA phenotyping company GEDmatch, a public genealogy website that famously helped catch the Golden State Killer, started creating a family tree based on the killer’s DNA. Familial matches narrowed down the suspect list to three brothers from Manchester, Iowa. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, police investigators placed the brothers under surveillance in an attempt to covertly collect their DNA.

In October 2018, Jerry Lynn Burns was drinking a soda out of a plastic glass with a clear straw. The discarded straw was retrieved by a police investigator after Burns left it behind. An analyst at the Iowa state crime lab found that DNA from the straw matched the blood found on Martinko’s dress.

When police executed a search warrant of Burns’ home and office, they found a computer with search history that included “blonde females, assault, rape, strangulation, murder, abuse and rape of a deceased individuals, and cannibalism.” Burns was arrested Dec. 19, 2018.

Burns’ arrest prompted rumors about two of his family members; his wife, Patricia, who died by suicide in 2008, and his cousin, Brian Burns, who vanished in Dec. 19, 2013.

Murder Trial and Conviction: Burns pleaded not guilty to murdering Martinko at his trial. However, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on Feb. 24, 2020.

In June 2020, Burns’ attorney motioned for a retrial asserting the way authorities went about obtaining DNA from Burns and his family members to provide his DNA found at the crime scene was a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The judge denied the request for retrial and proceeded with handing Burns the mandatory life sentence on Aug. 7, 2020, with no possibility of parole. He was also ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of Martinko.

Appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court: In September 2020, Burns filed a notice of appeal in his murder conviction. In January 2021, it was announced that Burns had hired Chicagoland Attorney Kathleen Zellner to represent him in the appeal. Zellner is famous for representing Steven Avery, one of the subjects in Netflix’s “Making of a Murderer” true crime documentary series.

At this time, Burns remains behind bars and still denies having anything to do with the murder “to the best of his knowledge.”

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