Chapter 2: Oil and Water
Tessa Kramer: Previously on Admissible:
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Marvin Anderson: I always look at Ms. Burton as a person that saw the future when no one else did.
Joan Anderson: I think she knew that DNA was going to be admissible.
Mike Herring: Mary Jane Burton, sort of the angel of the Virginia innocence movement.
Marilyn Miller: 13 people were exonerated. That’s a big number. That’s a big, as Joe Biden would say, a big f***ing deal, Okay?
Candace Rondeaux: I think there were a couple of concerns as I recall about Mary Jane Burton. There was an internal whistleblower… another lab worker who had complained about her work.
Nancy: Mary Jane Burton was a lying piece of s***. How’s that for you? She was a nasty evil woman.
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Tessa Kramer [on the phone]: [whispering] I mean I don’t know if she’s gonna pick up but –
Gina Demas: Hello?
Tessa Kramer: Um, hi, my name is Tessa Kramer. I’m a journalist in New York. Um, I’m looking for Ms. Regina…
Tessa Kramer [VO]: My reporting partner Sophie Bearman and I had heard rumors of a whistleblower who complained about Mary Jane Burton, Virginia’s Chief Serologist, back in the 1970s. This is so different from everything we’ve heard about Mary Jane, so we’re not sure what to believe. But we manage to reach the “whistleblower” – Gina Demas.
Tessa Kramer [on the phone]: We came across your name in an article –
Gina Demas: Let me tell you something about that article before we even go any further.
Tessa Kramer: Please.
Gina Demas: I talked to that woman and I told her a bunch of stuff. And I thought it made me look like some kind of whack job.
Tessa Kramer [VO]: I mean, Gina is an outlier in this article. It’s from the early 2000s – right after the state of Virginia discovered that Burton had saved thousands of bits of evidence in her case files – evidence that would be used to clear thirteen innocent men. Everyone quoted speaks super highly of Mary Jane Burton – except Gina.
The head of the lab – Dr. Paul Ferrara – the guy who discovered those bits of evidence – he says he investigated and he never found any proof of Gina’s claims. Ferrara died in 2011, so we couldn’t ask him or Mary Jane Burton about this. Other co-workers said the dispute boiled down to a personality conflict. Whatever the case, Gina is clearly pissed about how Mary Jane Burton has been covered in the media.
Gina Demas: Now they’re saying thank God for Mary Jane Burton? Bull****! You know, we ended up just decimating each other, the two of us. This is a story that will scare the bejesus out of you.
Tessa Kramer: We head down to western Virginia to meet Gina. It’s a freezing cold evening in early January. We’re driving down this suburban block looking for her address – and there’s one house with a porch lit up with black lights. And we realize – that’s Gina’s house.
Gina Demas: Sorry about the black lights, I forgot to switch ’em out after Halloween.
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Tessa Kramer: I’m Tessa Kramer and this is Admissible.
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Gina Demas: Sorry about the jumble, I’m still in Christmas.
Tessa Kramer: We set up in Gina’s dining room – which by the way, is full of wine bottles, on every surface. Gina’s a traveling wine saleswoman. She had just gotten back the night before.
Gina Demas: I’m not putting up a Christmas tree so I got these red streaks put in my hair. I said “Okay I’ll decorate my head if I’m not going to put a tree up.”
Tessa Kramer: As we sit down, Gina takes out her college yearbook.
Gina Demas: The reason I pulled this out is because I found a picture. The guy from the police station…
Tessa Kramer: She points to a black and white photo of a police officer leaning against a patrol car, surrounded by students in bell-bottoms and big collars. All the girls have Farrah Fawcett haircuts.
Gina Demas: They brought the police car so we could take a picture with it.
Tessa Kramer: Gina points to a girl standing next to the officer – she’s in her early 20s, holding the officer’s walkie talkie and beaming from ear to ear.
Gina Demas: That’s me, there.
Tessa Kramer: That’s you?
Gina Demas: Yeah. That’s me.
Tessa Kramer: What year was this?
Gina Demas: This is when I was uh working in the lab in Charlotte. That’s where I met Mary Jane.
Tessa Kramer: In the early ‘70s, before she was hired as the Chief Serologist in Virginia, Mary Jane Burton worked at a crime lab in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gina was a sophomore in college when she saw a posting about an internship at that crime lab.
Gina Demas: And I thought, ooh, that’s kinda cool to work in a lab in the police station. Big Perry Mason fan, right?
Tessa Kramer: Gina says she interviewed with Mary Jane, they hit it off, and Mary Jane became her mentor.
Gina Demas: Nice lady. We were good friends. I had dinner with her a few times. Only thing I remember is the spinach souffle from Stouffer’s because I’d never had it before. She had a big laugh – huge, loud laugh. It was great, you know? Everybody would crack up when she started laughing.
Tessa Kramer: Sophie and I are kinda surprised to hear how well things started out between Gina and Mary Jane.
Gina Demas: She was everybody’s hero. The police in Charlotte thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. She was like “Mary Jane’s a legend” and, and I thought she was great, too!
Sophie Bearman: She was like your teacher. I mean, everything you learned –
Gina Demas: Mhmm, she was my mentor! I learned how to do ABO typing on a slide. I might’ve learned origin determination from her and definitely phenolphthalein testing, benzidine…
Tessa Kramer: Okay – don’t worry about all that lingo. The point here is that Mary Jane is teaching Gina the building blocks of serology: the analysis of bodily fluids like blood, and semen, and saliva. Serology was used to narrow down a suspect pool, basically by eliminating people whose blood type didn’t match the evidence found at a crime scene.
Gina Demas: Unlike DNA now, where it pretty much narrows it right down to that person. At that time, if you said somebody’s blood type was A, that was 40 or 45% of the population. So that wasn’t much help. If it was A-negative, that was more help. If it was an EAP system, that was more help. If it was in Haptoglobin that was more help…
Tessa Kramer: EAP and Haptoglobin are enzymes and markers in your bodily fluids that they could test for, to help narrow things down more and more.
Gina Demas: So each system that you ran – especially if somebody had a rare blood type – it would take it from one in 10 million down to one in 5,000 maybe.
Tessa Kramer: Mary Jane also teaches Gina about hair and fiber analysis – and Gina is loving it. She decides to follow in Mary Jane’s footsteps with a career in forensic science. She majors in biochemistry and keeps interning at the lab throughout college. When she graduates, she starts looking for a job in the field.
Sophie Bearman: And how did you end up getting the job?
Gina Demas: From Mary Jane.
Tessa Kramer: By this point, Mary Jane’s in Virginia, and she hires Gina as a serology trainee.
Gina Demas: I interviewed in North Carolina and they didn’t hire me because they asked me if I’d ever smoked pot and I told them I tried it once and so they didn’t hire me because I was a pothead, I guess. I was like, what am I going to do, lie? I’m going to start lying right out the bat? I didn’t tell ‘em I tried it with a policeman.
Tessa Kramer: In 1976, Gina moves to Richmond. By day, she’s pursuing the career that she loves. And by night?
Gina Demas: I mean I was in my 20s and it was disco days.
Gina Demas: Where the lab was located was right down in the Shockoe Slip area of Richmond, which was the hoppin’ place to be! Because you’re wearing a lab coat all day, you could wear your going out clothes underneath, and you’d just rip your lab coat off and go about two blocks and you were there! My scotch and water would be sitting at the side of the bar. Dewar’s with a twist! I used to teach disco lessons at lunch time.
Tessa Kramer: The honeymoon phase doesn’t last long.
Gina Demas: When I first started working with her, I went with her to court and it was a rape case. And when she got up and testified, if I didn’t know what I knew, I would have thought she was saying “this hair came from this person and no other.” And it bothered me.
And so when we got back in the car, I said, “Mary Jane,” I said, “You didn’t actually say it was the suspect’s hair but it seemed like you were saying that and we really can’t tell.” I said, “What if the guy’s not guilty?” And she said, “Well then the Commonwealth shouldn’t be trying him.” And I’m like [gasps]. I was like, oh my gosh, you can’t do that. My head was exploding. Bells and whistles were going off.
Tessa Kramer: After that conversation, Gina starts watching Mary Jane a little more closely. Gina was only a sophomore when she met Mary Jane, but by now…
Gina Demas: I got two more years of good biochem training. So, when I got there, I was a different Gina. And the first thing I see is just sloppy, no controls…
Tessa Kramer: This becomes a big deal, so I want to pause on controls for a second. Controls are huge in any science – but definitely in serology back in the day. Here’s how one serologist, Gary Harmor, described it to me:
Gary Harmor: For example, if you’re from another planet and you come to earth and you – you have a rabbit and a chicken. And you don’t know which is which, cause you’ve never seen either one before. So if you had a known rabbit and a known chicken, you’d be able to compare the two and say, “Hey, I know which one’s the chicken and which one’s the rabbit on these two unknown things because I’ve got these controls.” And it’s very similar to what’s done in forensic serology.
Tessa Kramer: And before you even get to the point of testing the evidence – you have to run a few basic controls to make sure your tests are even working. And that the evidence itself isn’t giving you a false positive – which can happen.
Gina Demas: Cause sometimes the materials were contaminated with detergent or dirt or whatever.
Tessa Kramer: Those contaminants could give you a reaction that looked like a particular blood type, but was actually completely meaningless. This all might sound a little bit nitpicky but to a scientist, this is a huge deal. And shocking that someone like Mary Jane might’ve been skipping these steps.
Gina Demas: That was like, Biology 101! If I didn’t run a positive and negative control, who cares what I came up with? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything.
Sophie Bearman: So the most basic stuff was just missing.
Gina Demas: Yeah, you have to know your test is not contaminated and that it works.
Tessa Kramer: Gina says this was a pattern with Mary Jane…always rushing things and cutting corners. Trying to save money or get through cases faster. Here’s one example:
Gina Demas: You were supposed to keep the gel in a test tube and check the temperature of it because you’re dealing with proteins and enzymes. And if it’s too hot, it will kill them. Mary Jane didn’t want to wait to test the temperature. So she just poured it slowly down the test tube.
And I’m like, “Mary Jane, it’s probably too hot.” She’s like, “Well, by the time it gets to the end of the test tube it’s cool enough.” I said, “How do you know?” And she wouldn’t let us take the temperature of the gel. I mean, I would have flunked if I had turned in something like that, much less sent somebody to jail.
Tessa Kramer: Skipping over basic steps…It doesn’t take a biochem degree to get why that matters.
Gina Demas: It got to the point where I felt like things were kinda serious. And so I made an appointment to talk to Warren Johnson, who was the head of the lab.
Tessa Kramer: Warren Johnson was the Director of the lab.
Gina Demas: He was very handsome. I thought he was handsome anyway, he was old, but he was handsome. And he was a weenie. Very politician-y, slimy…but he was nice looking.
Tessa Kramer: Johnson is in his 50s, coming off a 20-year stint as a special agent with the FBI. Which, Gina says, was typical of the lab’s management at the time.
Gina Demas: These people were ex-FBI people with polka dot ties. They all wore white shirts and polka dot ties. It was like J. Edgar Hoover. And obviously, oil and water didn’t mix.
Tessa Kramer: This conflict within the lab – it’s kind of a microcosm of the much bigger divides in the country. Gina started in 1976. This is post-Vietnam, post-Watergate and it’s a time of racial conflict as well. There were still riots over school desegregation happening around the country. And this is less than a decade after the Loving vs. Virginia ruling, in which the Supreme Court finally struck down state laws banning interracial marriage.
So, in the lab, when the 23-year-old disco queen goes to the ex-FBI guy complaining about scientific protocols, let’s just say they don’t see eye-to-eye.
Gina Demas: Warren’s main take on that was that I was just unhappy cause my boyfriend was in Charlotte.
Sophie Bearman: What?
Gina Demas: That’s what he said to me. “You’re just unhappy because your boyfriend is in Charlotte.”
Tessa Kramer: Whether this was some classic ‘70s sexism, or that generational tension, or something else, Gina feels like Johnson is not interested in what she has to say. So she turns to someone else – the only other serologist in the lab besides Mary Jane – a woman named Joan Faunce.
Gina Demas: Joan didn’t like the way she did some of her stuff.
Tessa Kramer: As Gina tells it, Joan shared her concerns about Mary Jane’s practices – especially around a new technique they’re using called electrophoresis. I remember learning about electrophoresis in my high school bio class – that thing where you put a sample on a gel plate, and you run an electric current through it, and that can separate out the molecules by size or electric charge. It can do that for the enzymes in your blood.
Clear electrophoresis results showed a series of lines. Less clear results, though, require a bit of interpretation. And because this is so new, Gina, Joan, and Mary Jane are all kinda learning it together. So they’d run their tests, and then they’d look over the results together.
Gina Demas: Joan would read it and then I’d read it, and we’d all try to figure out what it was, but sometimes it would just be a blur. Maybe it was detergent on the jeans or whatever. Or it’d be really faint sometimes and you’re like “I think it’s this, it might be that.” And I think that’s probably where Joan first voiced her disagreements with Mary Jane, because Mary Jane would like call stuff that was like a big blob. You’re like, “What are you – you can’t read that! You know, it’s like, that’s not good enough.”
Tessa Kramer: Making definitive calls – “this bloodstain is type O” – instead of calling a murky result inconclusive? Gina says this was another pattern that they saw with Mary Jane: she was pushing the limits of her tests because she was so determined to get a result. That’s what was going on with the electrophoresis test, and there were other examples. Gina says Mary Jane would set the magnification on their microscopes way too high – if she wasn’t getting a result at the standard 7x, she would zoom in to like 30x.
Gina Demas: Essentially going too far is what it was. She had to make it work.
Tessa Kramer: Instead of coming back and saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you–”
Gina Demas: “We don’t have enough sample, you know, it’s contaminated.” And I mean it wasn’t like we were testing to see if there was something in the water. People were going to jail.
Tessa Kramer: Okay, let’s step back for a minute. These are some very serious allegations. And frankly, Sophie and I just don’t know what to make of this. It’s not that we don’t believe Gina, exactly – these are very specific things she’s describing and it’s hard to imagine she’s pulling this out of thin air.
At the same time, Mary Jane was the supervisor and Gina was in training, so what if Gina’s the one whose work wasn’t up to par? And we know from Gina’s sister that she lost her job over this. What if she’s got an ax to grind? We start making calls to some other people who worked in the lab – to see if anyone can corroborate Gina’s story – without much success. And then finally we reach someone who seems to know what we’re talking about.
Tessa Kramer [on the phone]: Um, and we did speak with Gina, who was Gina Demas then –
Shirley Patterson: Gina Demas. Gina Demas. Now she was a – she played a big role. She’s a real smart girl. I always felt for her, that that happened to her.
Tessa Kramer: After the break – how this all blew up.
Shirley Patterson: It sounds so outdated now but we were called Office Service Specialists, and I was assigned to serology.
Tessa Kramer: Shirley Patterson worked as the secretary for the serology lab in Richmond for more than 30 years, overlapping with both Mary Jane and Gina.
Shirley Patterson: Gina, she’s a little spitfire. When she walks into a room you just know she’s in the room. She was real bubbly. She was a people person. A lot of people liked Gina. She wanted a big career and she loved forensics. That’s what she wanted to do.
Tessa Kramer: And Mary Jane?
Shirley Patterson: She almost struck me as like a commanding sergeant or something, you know?
Tessa Kramer: We ask Shirley what she remembers about what went down between Mary Jane and Gina.
Shirley Patterson: Um, all I know is that Gina was upset because some tests weren’t being run properly.
Sophie Bearman: When did Gina sort of raise her concerns with you?
Shirley Patterson: Gina and I were friends. Um, I mean, we were in a carpool together and stuff. And then Deanne Dabbs came also.
Tessa Kramer: Deanne Dabbs was another serology trainee, who started in 1977 – about a year after Gina. So, the three of them are driving to work every day and Gina and Deanne start talking about Mary Jane, and what’s going on in the lab. Shirley’s not a trained scientist so she doesn’t understand everything that Deanne and Gina were saying –
Shirley Patterson: They would discuss things – you know of course some of that was like Greek to me, you know. But I did understand about the controls. That was a biggie. You have to run a control. I mean even I would know that.
Tessa Kramer: Shirley caught wind of something else in those carpool rides, something about Mary Jane’s lab notes.
Shirley Patterson: Something was wrong with the notes that she was keeping. Something about that the test said one thing, and her notes said something else.
Tessa Kramer: This is where things come to a head. At some point, Gina starts to suspect that Mary Jane is reporting blood types to the police that don’t match the results of her testing. The way things worked, the serologists would run their tests and write down their results in some record books in the lab – sometimes called bench notes. And then, it was Shirley’s job to type up those results into a report for the police.
Shirley Patterson: So like Mary Jane would come to me – and everything was done on a tape, you know…we had dictaphones back then. They were saying it in their words what they wanted us to put on the paper.
Tessa Kramer: That’s how things were supposed to work. But one day, Shirley finds Gina in the lab.
Gina Demas: Shirley was pissed. She’s like spittin’ fire. She comes in and she says, “Mary Jane’s making me type this report over. She says I made mistakes. I don’t make mistakes,” she says – which she really didn’t.
Shirley Patterson: I was upset at her saying that I didn’t do something right and I was like, “Well, that’s not what you brought me!” You know? I had the sheet and I showed it to Gina, you know, I said “This is what it was!”
Tessa Kramer: Mary Jane is accusing Shirley of typing up the wrong blood type. And Shirley’s saying, “Uh, no, I wrote what you had in your notes.”
Shirley Patterson: She seemed to think that I had totally typed it wrong and I said, “No I didn’t. I typed what you said.” I mean that was something that was very important, certain blood types and certain secretions, and I mean you just don’t get those wrong.
Tessa Kramer: They’re not squabbling over some minor typo. This is about the suspect’s blood type. And next thing they know, Mary Jane’s over at the paper shredder.
Gina Demas: She was at the shredder with her report. And she had Shirley type a new report and send it out.
Tessa Kramer: This crosses a line. So, Gina turns to Dr. Paul Ferrara – a big name in our story, and in the world of forensics. Ferrara would go on to become the Director who’d usher the lab into the DNA era.
[Archival] Paul Ferrara: …with a degree of specificity hitherto unknown in conventional forensic science.
Tessa Kramer: Gina figures certainly this guy will understand why Mary Jane’s behavior is so bad. But Ferrara says that they need more proof because the lab won’t do anything with just one case.
Gina Demas: And we were like, wait a minute. It’s not just one case. This was the kind of stuff that has been going on and because she was taking shortcuts or doing whatever she was doing, because she wasn’t doing her stuff right to start with.
Tessa Kramer: So, they hatch a plan. The day after the meeting with Dr. Ferrara, they photocopy Mary Jane’s bench notes – to look for any discrepancies with her reports. A few days go by, and then…
Gina Demas: We were working in the lab and she came in and she got the record books and she was erasing stuff. We’re like, “You can’t erase stuff!” And so, we’re like sitting there, “What in the heck?” The whole time she’s erasing these books, she didn’t know that we had already copied them. So then we waited until she left and we copied the books again and that’s when we found all the stuff was changed.
Sophie Bearman: What was changed?
Gina Demas: Some of the blood types that were originally reported were changed.
Sophie Bearman: And is it possible that she re-ran –
Gina Demas: No. Cause it takes all day to run it, where were the samples? These things were just changed.
Tessa Kramer: If Gina collected all this evidence of what Mary Jane had done, where is it now? Obviously, we need proof of these allegations. So, what happened to these photocopies?
Gina Demas: I carried those damn things around for I don’t know how long.
Tessa Kramer: Gina tells us she used to have them, but she gave them to someone.
Gina Demas: I don’t remember what her name was.
Tessa Kramer: And that was more than 15 years ago…
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Tessa Kramer: Coming up this season on Admissible, we’re going to track down that box of documents…
Sophie Bearman: Look at all this…
Tessa Kramer: Holy s***.
Sophie Bearman: This is a lot.
Tessa Kramer: This is a lot.
Tessa Kramer: …and see what comes flying out.
Jon Sheldon: This is the worst kind of fraud that we always think exists. And everyone says, no it doesn’t.
Deanne Dabbs: Well I think the implications are huge. I think it calls into question the cases that she worked. I mean all the cases. And she worked a lot of cases. A lot of cases
Marilyn Miller: It’s evidence tampering, frankly.
Shirley Patterson: I mean they knew she was doing wrong, they just covered it up.
Gina Demas: They all covered all of that up. Knowing it was wrong. If you want to do that, there’s mafias for that.
Julius Earl Ruffin: To destroy a man’s life? To take away 21 years of his life and you can’t sit there and say that you was wrong? And you can’t admit to the fact that you was wrong?
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Admissible is produced and hosted by Tessa Kramer. Our executive producer is Ellen Horne.
Original reporting by Tessa Kramer and Sophie Bearman, with additional reporting by Ben Paviour and Whittney Evans. Our editor is Danielle Elliot, with additional editing by Ellen Horne.
Our production team is: Dana Bialek, Chloe Wynne, Gilda Di Carli, Leslie Neigher, Kristin Vermilya and Kim Nederveen Pieterse. Production Legal by Craig Merritt and Innes Smolansky.
Gavin Wright is VPM’s Managing Producer for Podcasts. Meg Lindholm is the Director of Podcast Production.
Sound Design and Mix by Charles Michelet. Music by Del Toro Sound and Story Mechanics, and with additional music by APM. Our theme music is by me, Bryan J. Howard of Del Toro Sound. Contributions of music and performances by Jay Gonzalez, Carlton Owens, Nick Rosen, Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, Kevin Sweeney, and R. Sloan Simpson.
Special thanks to: Steve Humble, Paige Williams, Emile Deweaver, Chioke I’anson, Kelly Jones, Mangesh Hattikudur, Lulu Miller, Chenjerai Kumanyika, Kelly Prime, Nick Van Der Kolk, John and Eileen Kramer, Adam Savage, Alexandra Cohl, and iHeart Media’s Beth Anne Macaluso and Dylan Fagan.
Admissible, Season 1, Shreds of Evidence is produced by Story Mechanics and VPM, Virginia’s home for public media. We are distributed by iHeart Media.