Chapter 3: Pandora’s Box
Tessa Kramer: Previously on Admissible…
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Mike Herring: Mary Jane Burton, sort of the angel of the Virginia innocence movement.
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 the legend.
Shirley Patterson: All I know is that Gina was upset because some tests weren’t being run properly.
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.
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Tessa Kramer: Reporter Sophie Bearman and I are calling around, trying to verify the story we heard in our last episode, from a woman named Gina Demas, about her concerns surrounding the work of Virginia’s longtime Chief Serologist, Mary Jane Burton. We start with Joan Faunce, the other serologist who Gina claims shared her concerns.
Sophie Bearman: Tessa and I are doing a project on the DNA Testing and Notification Project and Mary Jane Burton, and we were hoping to speak with you…
Sophie Bearman: Did she just hang up?
Tessa Kramer: Yeah.
Sophie Bearman: Should I call back and say, I think we got disconnected?
Tessa Kramer: Definitely.
Tessa Kramer: We do call her back – it doesn’t work. Joan won’t take our calls. Just like she won’t respond to our letters and won’t open the door when we go to her house and try to plead our case.
Joan isn’t the only one who doesn’t want to talk. Whenever we bring up Gina’s name, people start to get cagey. A few people would only talk off the record. One person wouldn’t say a word until we turned off our mic altogether. This means one thing: those documents Gina told us about, the ones that contain proof of her allegations, we need to find those documents.
So where are they? Gina says that in the 2000s – about 30 years after she started questioning Mary Jane’s work – Gina heard something in the news that caught her attention. The state of Virginia had found bits of DNA evidence stashed away in Mary Jane’s old case files.
Gina Demas: So I thought, “Uh, okay, I’m going to take one more run at this.”
Tessa Kramer: Gina went to a lawyer who was involved in the state’s case review. Gina told her she had some information that might be of interest.
Gina Demas: I rented a car cause I was afraid somebody might follow me or something with these documents. I remember parking in some underground garage and looking around like, “Oh my gosh, what if somebody’s coming to get me.”
Tessa Kramer: I’m picturing the parking garage in All The President’s Men. And while it seems far-fetched, it makes me wonder: what could possibly be in this box of documents that’s this dangerous?
Gina Demas: And I got these documents up to her office and showed her. She said, “What do you want me to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m handing this over to you now you’re responsible for it. I’ve done everything I could possibly do. Nobody seems to want to fix this.”
I thought maybe after she looked at the stuff, she’d call back, but she never did. And I pretty much told her, I lost my job. I’ve tried to do something about this every time I’ve had a chance. I said, you’re just another stop. You girls are just another stop.
Tessa Kramer: We don’t want to be “just another stop,” though we’re not wildly optimistic that this lawyer will still have the box. I reach out and the lawyer responds by email. I call Sophie.
Tessa Kramer: Did you see [redacted]’s email just now?
Sophie Bearman: I did not. What did she say?
Tessa Kramer: She says she does have Gina’s documents.
Sophie Bearman: What?!
Tessa Kramer: Yeah.
Sophie Bearman: I assumed they’d be lost or thrown away or something. Okay. That’s huge.
Tessa Kramer: The lawyer has the documents, but says she can’t speak to the merits of Gina’s allegations.
Sophie Bearman: So, she says she doesn’t know anything about it. Like she doesn’t want to talk about the allegations themselves?
Tessa Kramer: I guess not, yeah.
Sophie Bearman: Fascinating.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean Gina just really turns people off, it seems like. She’s like this third rail that nobody wants to talk about.
Sophie Bearman: They’re not interested in opening that box.
Tessa Kramer: Other people might not be interested in opening that box – but we sure are. The lawyer sends us the documents, which arrive in a banged up cardboard box.
[sounds of box being opened]
Sophie Bearman: Look at all this…
Tessa Kramer: Holy shit.
Sophie Bearman: Yeah. This is a lot.
Tessa Kramer: You know that “Pandora’s Box” I mentioned at the beginning of this series? The one I’ve been carrying around with me the last four years? This is that box.
[Admissible theme begins]
Tessa Kramer: This is Admissible. I’m Tessa Kramer.
[Admissible theme ends]
Sophie Bearman: Should we open up our massive…
Gina Demas: Yeah! Let’s see what we got in the box.
Sophie Bearman: I’ll move these over…
Tessa Kramer: We bring the box over to Gina’s house and start pulling things out.
Gina Demas: Oh gosh I didn’t realize it was this much stuff.
Sophie Bearman: Let’s see. Oh boy.
Gina Demas: Just pull it out.
Tessa Kramer: We start going through the documents and it is a mess – faded photocopies with scribbled notes in the margins – people’s names and phone numbers. Old newspaper clippings, random pages stapled together.
Gina Demas: It’s very complicated.
Sophie Bearman: Some neat handwriting there.
Gina Demas: That’s me. These are Joan’s. That’s Mary Jane’s handwriting.
Tessa Kramer: We’ve got papers spread out across Gina’s dining room table – some falling on the floor.
Gina Demas: Oops.
Tessa Kramer: I’m waiting for a moment where it feels like things are clicking into place with these documents, but the deeper we get into the box it just feels more confusing.
Gina Demas: What in the world…What is this…I think maybe some pages are missing.
Tessa Kramer: Plus – to me and Sophie – this is like trying to read hieroglyphics.
Gina Demas: O, Rh Positive, EAP-B, esterase-D 1, and then Haptoglobin 2-1-M.
Sophie Bearman: Jeez. So what does all this mean?
Gina Demas: Okay.
Sophie Bearman: I feel like it’s gibberish.
Gina Demas: I’m still going.
Tessa Kramer: All this gibberish seems important. But for now, what we’re really looking for are the photocopies of Mary Jane’s notes – the books Gina says she caught Mary Jane erasing and changing results in, back in 1977.
Gina Demas: Those books that are changed. That’s what I wanted y’all to see that, but I can’t find it now.
Tessa Kramer: We’ve gone through all the rest of it.
Gina Demas: Oops! Copies of the electrophoresis workbook.
Tessa Kramer: Finally, Gina finds the copies.
Gina Demas: Hold onto your heads, while they explode. Lemme see if I can figure this out. OK it says on the top “before.” Let’s see if there were changes on this one. Oh, I’ve got them taped to each other. B… B… B…
Sophie Bearman: It’s the same.
Gina Demas: B… C…
Tessa Kramer: There are photocopies labeled “before” and “after.” We’re looking for any discrepancies between them. It’s like one of those spot-the-difference puzzles, except it’s hundreds of pages long and everything is in grayscale. After hours of looking, we have spotted no differences whatsoever. Sophie and I call it a night.
Sophie Bearman: Okay. Well, what’d you think?
Tessa Kramer: That was so intense. We got there at 6:30. It’s been almost four hours?
Sophie Bearman: I…don’t find her that credible.
Tessa Kramer: Really?
Sophie Bearman: Yeah. She was unable to really find, like, anything. I don’t know, it was a lot of stuff, but of what? I guess I’m waiting for that aha moment where I’m like, “Oh I see this.”
Tessa Kramer: I don’t know! That box of documents is a frickin’ nightmare.
Tessa Kramer: I am determined to make sense of this “frickin nightmare.” I can get a little obsessive about organization. Like, if it can be alphabetized, already done it. That night, I stay up late, going through the documents page by page, sorting them into piles on the floor of our hotel room. The next day, we head back to Gina’s, and I place my freshly ordered piles on the table.
Tessa Kramer: I had to reorganize – the pages had gotten out of order.
Gina Demas: Yeah.
Tessa Kramer: I’m arranging the piles, labeling them with color-coded sticky notes…
Tessa Kramer: This stack should be identical so where are these papers?
Tessa Kramer: Putting them in order by date…
Tessa Kramer: These go in this pile, I think.
Gina Demas: I don’t know.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah that’s the top of this.
Gina Demas: Alright! Somebody’s in charge!
Tessa Kramer: Well, gotta be vigilant about not…
Gina Demas: I hope I don’t find anything else.
Tessa Kramer: …mixing the piles.
Tessa Kramer: That’s me – vigilant with my piles. As Sophie and Gina are talking, I start comparing the before and after copies.
Gina Demas: There was a regional lab in Northern Virginia…
Tessa Kramer: Oh wait! I found a change?
Tessa Kramer: I find a change.
Gina Demas: Is it haptoglobin?
Tessa Kramer: No it’s the EAP…
Gina Demas: EAP esterase-D? Oh, you found it! Good.
Tessa Kramer: According to Gina, this is a case where Mary Jane erased something and made the lab secretary type up a new report. And then Mary Jane shredded the original one.
Gina Demas: What’s the date?
Tessa Kramer: May 16th, 1977. It’s the page that looks like this.
Tessa Kramer: I’m looking at two copies of the same page from a notebook, where Mary Jane wrote down her test results for that day. And they’re copied a few weeks apart. The pages are identical – except for item #33. On the original copy, Mary Jane had written down one result. And on the other copy? It’s different – just a couple characters different.
Tessa Kramer: I mean, I don’t know how significant of a change…
Gina Demas: If it’s changed, it’s a different blood type! That’s like saying, “They’re O. No, they’re A.” There’s B, BA. And then these are Esterase-D’s. It’s a 1, it’s a 2-1 –
Sophie Bearman: I’m sorry – I feel like the skeptical – but unless we have a sheet showing that she didn’t do another test…isn’t there a reason that it could have changed? She could have rerun the test –
Gina Demas: No. Because we can’t have…Look, you can’t have two tests from the same day with different things. You can’t get two different results on March 16th. Or May 16th.
Sophie Bearman: You can’t go back into your diary and write, you know, a new entry. Like you would just – yeah, okay, I get it. That’s pretty damning.
Tessa Kramer: There’s really no excuse for an analyst to change their bench notes. Like, yes, mistakes happen, but if they do, you make a note of it – that you messed up and ran a new test on a different day, or maybe you made a typo and here’s what you meant to say. But you never go back and erase.
And Item #33 is not just any piece of evidence. It’s the blood sample taken from a suspect – the sample they would compare with the evidence found at the crime scene – to see if it’s the same blood type.
Let me explain a little of what’s going on here. This was a rape case. And the police found some blood at the crime scene – blood believed to have come from the perpetrator who’d been cut during the attack. Mary Jane ran her tests and then the police sent Mary Jane a sample from their suspect, to see if he matched that blood found at the crime scene. And for some reason, the suspect’s blood sample was left in the storage refrigerator for too long.
Gina Demas: And instead of getting another sample, she typed it anyway.
Tessa Kramer: This is a prime example of the behavior Gina described in our last episode: Mary Jane being determined to get a result for the police, even when the evidence was too iffy to call. And when the cops get Mary Jane’s report?
Gina Demas: I guess the report didn’t make any sense to the cops, so they called her up. They’re like, “What in the world? You know, this doesn’t match” and all this kind of stuff –
Tessa Kramer: And instead of saying, “Hm, maybe something was wrong with my evidence. I’d better get a new sample,” Mary Jane just erased and changed her original result for the suspect’s blood type – without running any new tests. And – this is key – she changed it in a way that matched the perpetrator’s blood found at the crime scene.
But I’m actually not a trained serologist. What if there’s some explanation for all this? We need to get a second opinion – from someone besides Gina – who speaks this language.
Marilyn Miller: I managed to make it through 43 years of the job by doing my best damn work. If you can’t do that, don’t do this job. As I would tell my students, you can’t just make shit up. You have to prove it.
Tessa Kramer: That’s coming up, after the break.
Marilyn Miller: You want to know the best way to do this is to get us all together in the room, going through this stuff with a whiteboard and we can mark it down, just tabulate the hell out of things.
Tessa Kramer: Marilyn Miller is a retired serologist. She recently left her job as a professor of forensic science and crime scene investigation at Virginia Commonwealth University. My producer Ellen Horne and I meet her – with mics rolling.
Marilyn Miller: Life is just a bunch of sounds to you huh? Nice to meet you all.
Tessa Kramer: Marilyn pulls up with a briefcase and a leather-bound tome that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Tessa Kramer: What is this book?
Marilyn Miller: Well, you know I tried to anticipate all my needs. I brought almost all of my office with me – what’s left of it. 43 years worth of accumulated reference materials.
Tessa Kramer: Welcome to Serology 101…which is great, because I have some basic questions for Marilyn. Like, what was a serologist like Mary Jane Burton doing all day long?
Marilyn Miller: It’s actually, you’re identifying proteins…I’m sorry. I’m just gonna put it on the board. It’s easier.
Tessa Kramer: Oh, absolutely. That’s what the board is for.
Marilyn starts drawing a flow chart on the whiteboard, tracing the path of a piece of evidence – say a reddish-brown stain found at a crime scene.
Marilyn Miller: First thing you do are some prelim screening tests.
Tessa Kramer: A simple preliminary test, that could actually be done by investigators at the crime scene, to see if that reddish-brown stain is what they think it is.
Marilyn Miller: If it’s positive, it gives you–
Tessa Kramer: It is blood.
Marilyn Miller: No, it’s giving you the possibility that it might be blood.
Tessa Kramer: Might be blood.
Marilyn Miller: The problem is there are lots of false positives. You still need to then do the Takayama.
Tessa Kramer: The Takayama. A more precise test that had to be done with a microscope in the laboratory. If the Takayama is negative…
Marilyn Miller: Let’s put the negative over here since I’m running out of space. If it’s negative, then you most likely had a false positive up here. However, if you get a positive here, then absolutely we know that it is –
Tessa Kramer: Blood.
Marilyn Miller: Blood.
Tessa Kramer: Blood. But what kind of blood?
Marilyn Miller: The next step would be then to do a species.
Tessa Kramer: Believe it or not, it’s not that uncommon for some kind of animal blood or saliva to end up at a crime scene.
Marilyn Miller: So, all of this is what we call identification steps. What we move into next are called individualization steps.
Tessa Kramer: So, at this point, the analyst has done a bunch of tests to figure out what the evidence even is. Now, they start running tests to narrow down the pool of possible suspects. Basically going from “Is it blood?” to “whose blood?”
They test for specific enzymes and genetic markers that can help tell people apart. I want to explain a little bit here. Many people secrete their blood type in other bodily fluids like semen and saliva. Some people don’t – non-secretors. And in your blood, there are all kinds of other markers beyond your A/B/O blood type: EAP, Haptoglobin, Esterase-D…
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, these tests got much more advanced – and the number of enzymes they could identify increased. So, especially if a perpetrator had a rare blood type, they could narrow down to a pretty small pool of suspects. But still, these tests could never pinpoint an individual person the way DNA can.
Tessa Kramer: Are there any cases where they’re still doing serology testing or is it really irrelevant with DNA?
Marilyn Miller: It’s kind of irrelevant. It’s a dying art.
Tessa Kramer: This is why we went to Marilyn in the first place. It’s not that easy to find people who can still interpret the bench notes and results of this “dying art.” With our primer in serology complete, we’re ready to get into the substance of what I’ve come here to talk to Marilyn about: Mary Jane’s serology.
Gina’s box of documents contained much more than that one case where we found the discrepancy. Pages upon pages from the lab’s record books, and a handful of cases where Gina had highlighted specific issues with Mary Jane’s work. Gina said even this is just a fraction of all the cases with issues that she and Joan found back in the ‘70s. Gina claims they had a stack of papers 3 feet high. As far as we know, this box is all that remains.
Before our meeting, I’d sent Marilyn copies of Gina’s documents. I tried to tell her the bare minimum about Gina’s story – I didn’t even tell her Gina’s name. I really wanted as unbiased an assessment of Mary Jane’s work as possible. Though Marilyn had heard of Mary Jane before.
Marilyn Miller: I had heard of her as this person that had saved these samples that we were able to get 13 or however many exonerations it is. That’s what I find so disheartening, is that she wasn’t as great as I thought she was. There were many instances where she did not do the steps that we talked about.
Tessa Kramer: All those basic steps to make sure your evidence is what you think it is. Now, Marilyn tries to put herself in Mary Jane’s shoes – to imagine why she might do this. What she might’ve been thinking as she handled the evidence at her lab bench.
Marilyn Miller: I’m being Mary Jane here, okay?
Tessa Kramer: Yeah.
Marilyn Miller: If I had the evidence – if it looked red-brown and I – keep in mind – I’ve seen a thousand of these, it’s the right color, I don’t want to waste the sample to run a presumptive.
Tessa Kramer: The evidence from a crime scene – it’s not infinite. So, giving Mary Jane the benefit of the doubt, maybe she was concerned about using up her evidence. Basically thinking, “Eh, I know what blood looks like, I’m not going to waste this sample on those first few tests.”
Marilyn Miller: In some cases, she would call it human blood when she hadn’t even done the species test. That’s – that’s a red flag.
Tessa Kramer: That’s a bigger red flag?
Marilyn Miller: Yeah. That’s bigger than the presumptive test.
Tessa Kramer: Skipping the species test is a big deal – without it, you can’t tell animal blood from human blood.
Marilyn Miller: She just automatically jumped to A/B/O and then she did the EAP esterase-D and the haptoglobin.
Tessa Kramer: And what is problematic about that?
Marilyn Miller: It’s just not the way to do it. It’s not scientific.
Tessa Kramer: When I first heard some of Gina’s concerns, I admit they struck me as nitpicky. But the more I talk to her and Marilyn, I’m getting why this stuff is so important. Most of the time, yes, you could be pretty sure that this blood is human blood.
But there are several cases in Gina’s documents where this appears to have been an issue. A hunting accident where Mary Jane typed deer blood as human: A case that was thrown out because the defense argued a saliva sample could have come from the victim’s cat, and Mary Jane hadn’t run the species test. The headline ran: “Prosecutor done in by cat.” Another one of Gina’s concerns as far as basic procedures go? The fact that Mary Jane worked in pencil.
Marilyn Miller: Bad! Basic, basic lab – cause you can change it. I mean in organic chemistry – hell, in Gen Chem One and Gen Chem Two, the very first chemistry classes you take or even Biology One and Two – the first thing they tell you when you’re doing a lab is you can’t use pencil because you can erase and change, and we don’t do that in science.
Tessa Kramer: Right. That little problem of erasing and changing test results. We start looking at the case where we’d found the changed blood type.
Tessa Kramer: So, this was copied on May 20th. And then this is the same page from the same notebook copied a few weeks later.
Marilyn Miller: Yes.
Tessa Kramer: And these are obviously different.
Marilyn Miller: Yeah. Cause she just snuck in an A right here.
Tessa Kramer: We’re talking about item #33 – the suspect’s blood sample.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah so what can you – what do you make of that particular?
Marilyn Miller: It’s tampering with evidence? That’s all I could think of. It has to be. That’s just, you don’t do that.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah.
Marilyn Miller: I mean, that is – that’s really bad. That is really, really bad.
Tessa Kramer: Marilyn also confirms that Mary Jane’s initial result for that suspect would have been inconclusive – but she changed it in a way that could implicate him
Marilyn Miller: If it had remained just B, then it could possibly be the same as the victim.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah, because she reported it as BA –
Marilyn Miller: It adds value to it.
Tessa Kramer: It’s a change that made her results more valuable to investigators. Looking at Marilyn, she is having a physical response.
Tessa Kramer: You look tired just thinking about this.
Marilyn Miller: It’s cheating. It’s cheating. It’s like forging a check. You know, going in and adding a couple zeros. It’s evidence tampering, frankly but, you know, it’s the kind of stuff that would be missed. If your person weren’t keeping an eye on her and copying the book at different times, it would have never been noticed.
Tessa Kramer: I mean these – this is matching up with what was alleged. And so that’s very important for us to understand.
Marilyn Miller: Yes. Cause I don’t have any vested interests. I’m sorry that I’m maybe destroying somebody. I really don’t want to do that. But you don’t change evidence. You don’t create evidence; you don’t make it fit your scenario. So that’s a bad one.
Tessa Kramer: That’s a bad one.
Marilyn Miller: You know the skipping of the presumptives and the species origin are not great, but they’re not this.
Tessa Kramer: That was the one that seemed…
Marilyn Miller: That’s pretty egregious. You know, I’m not a lab director, or been a lab director. All I can say is that that would be grounds for at very least retraining, at most firing.
Tessa Kramer: Clearly Marilyn is deeply troubled by Mary Jane’s work. At the same time, she wonders what is the point of dredging all this up now?
Marilyn Miller: I have been sleepless worrying about what is to be gained by dragging Mary Jane Burton and showing she made mistakes. Did she make mistakes? Yes. But what is to be gained that wasn’t already gained by the review that our governor ordered in 2005? What more is to be gained? I mean, the fact that, you know, 13 people were exonerated? That’s a big number. That’s a big – as Joe Biden would say – a big f***ing deal, okay?
Tessa Kramer: It is a big deal. There’s no denying the good that came out of what Mary Jane did by saving these samples. So, these anxieties that Marilyn is expressing? I have them too. But the issues here are glaring. Marilyn sums it up with one word:
Marilyn Miller: Incompetence! Okay? That’s the best word I can come up with. But you know why she did this when it seems like she should have been a competent scientist? She’d been around doing this for a while. Why would somebody who’s been doing this for a long time make these kinds of errors? There had to be a cause. Overworked, underpaid, underloved?
Tessa Kramer: Underloved? We ask her to elaborate.
Marilyn Miller: You know, your home life always affects your work life. It always does. If you’re having a shitty day at home, you’re going to have a shitty day at work. Everybody knows that.
Tessa Kramer: What was Mary Jane’s home life? Who was the person who made these mistakes? And could the answer to that question help us answer a bigger one: Why would someone do this?
That’s next time on Admissible.
[Admissible theme plays]
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.