Chapter 5: Politics and Science
Falsifying results, skipping tests, and ignoring scientific protocols — why weren’t these concerns addressed by the Virginia state crime lab? Whistleblower Gina Demas finds herself caught in a clash between science and office politics.
Tessa Kramer: Previously, on Admissible:
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Gina Demas: I mean I was in my 20s and it was disco days. And 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.
Shirley Patterson: Mary Jane, 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.
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!”
Marilyn Miller: I mean, that is – that’s really bad. That is really, really bad. You know, I’m not a lab director or ever been a lab director. All I can say is that that would be grounds for at very least retraining, at most firing.
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Gina Demas: I think I would have had a better feeling about it if after I left, if they had stopped her, but they didn’t.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): What should they have done? What would have been right–
Gina Demas: What should they have done? They should have retired her. They should have retired her when we found that one case. They didn’t have to fire her. I didn’t care about that. But she needed to go away.
Tessa Kramer (VO): If Gina Demas, the whistleblower, had proof, way back in the 70s, that her boss – the head of Virginia’s serology lab, Mary Jane Burton – was skipping critical controls, pushing the limits of her tests, and even falsifying results, why was Mary Jane allowed to continue working cases for more than a decade?
Gina Demas: That was her big claim to fame, that she was a workhorse. She worked hundreds of cases! So, that many people. And instead of stopping it in ’76, it went on until she retired.
(Admissible theme begins)
Tessa Kramer: I’m Tessa Kramer, and this is Admissible.
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Tessa Kramer: A few episodes back, we heard about the moment Gina caught Mary Jane erasing and changing test results in the lab’s record books.
Shirley Patterson: I’m gonna tell you, it was so much going on then. It was like – it was all over the lab. It was – it was a big thing. And I was young, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh” you know?
Tessa Kramer: Shirley Patterson, the office secretary, is watching this unfold from her office – right next to a key player.
Shirley Patterson: Well, Paul Ferrara knew everything.
Tessa Kramer: Dr. Paul Ferrara. The scientist who would lead Virginia to become a national leader in the use of DNA technology after the Southside Strangler conviction. The guy that I like to describe as having “Big Scientist Energy” –
[Archival]: The DNA is now being used to identify individuals with a degree of specificity hitherto unknown in conventional forensic science.
Tessa Kramer: Dr. Ferrara is also the guy who discovered Mary Jane’s clippings in the early 2000s.
[Archival]: Holy cow! We still got some of this evidence.
Tessa Kramer: But that’s all years away. At this point, Dr. Ferrara is the lab’s new Chief Chemist. According to Gina’s documents, she joins forces with a few other people in the lab to take their concerns to Dr. Ferrara.
Shirley Patterson: He knew everything. They went to him. And the reason I know that is because his office was beside mine and it’s the type of office where it’s not closed up top? Like, partitions. But anyway, it’s almost like they were gathering information, and then it was up to him to take it to Warren Johnson.
Tessa Kramer: Warren Johnson – the Director of the lab.
Shirley Patterson: He’d known Mary Jane for a long time, from what I understand. Maybe he just didn’t want to believe or he was protecting her…cause, you know, nothing was done to her.
Tessa Kramer: Gina kept detailed notes of her efforts to raise the alarm…notes that we found in the box of documents.
Gina Demas: Ooh this’ll be handy for y’all. Look here: “Chronology of the Demas whistleblowing efforts.”
Tessa Kramer: It starts with a memo to Warren Johnson –
Gina Demas: Titled: Errors in Reports.
Tessa Kramer: …a memo about the case where they discovered that Mary Jane had erased and changed her test results, without running new tests. The memo sets off a flurry of meetings…
Gina Demas: …had a meeting with Warren, Paul Ferrara, Bob Edwards, Gina, Joan, and Deanne… Meeting with Dr. Tiedemann, Warren Johnson, Paul Ferrara, Mary Jane, Joan, Deanne and Gina… Meeting with Joan, Elmer, Gina and Mary Jane to discuss problems. Blah blah blah… Meeting was broken up by Warren Johnson and Paul Ferrara was removed from the room…Meeting with Warren: “Don’t buck the system.”
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): What would Mary Jane say in these meetings where her work was being brought up as a problem?
Gina Demas: She just – she got upset, sometimes she’d cry.
Tessa Kramer: But she wouldn’t deny it or anything?
Gina Demas: I mean they – Warren and those guys pretty much told us that they were her reports and she could do ‘em any way she wanted to.
When I was doing all this arguing with all these big wheels, the only thing I kept thinking was they’re wrong. What they’re doing is wrong. And if I don’t stand up for it, then it’s on me. It was never about them. It was never really about Mary Jane. This is somebody going to jail. This is somebody being executed. And I used to look at those people and realize they didn’t care. They did not care. There’s no way they didn’t know it was wrong. And that’s pitiful. It was okay for those people to sit in jail all this time, because nobody wanted to cause a ruckus?
Tessa Kramer (VO): Looking at Gina’s notes – hearing about all these meetings – it’s so frustrating. It feels like the lab is treating this like a personnel problem – office politics. These meetings drag on for months. And I can’t stop thinking about Julius Earl Ruffin.
Julius Earl Ruffin: They convicted me in seven minutes.
Tessa Kramer: Earl was one of the 13 men cleared by Mary Jane’s clippings in the 2000s…after spending 21 years in prison. Back in 1982, Earl was 28 years old, working in maintenance at a hospital the day two police officers showed up.
Julius Earl Ruffin: They came to my job site and they wanted to see me. And I’m saying, “Well, what’s going on?” I said, “What seems to be the problem?”
Tessa Kramer: A few weeks earlier, a woman who worked at the hospital had been assaulted in her home, in the middle of the night. The police had not made an arrest, until the woman happened to pass Earl, standing in an elevator at work. By the time the elevator doors closed, she became convinced that Earl was the man who had raped her.
Julius Earl Ruffin: And I’m saying, “Uh, why? Who is this person?” He said, “Well do you mind getting in a lineup?” You know, police lineup. I said, “Sure,” I said. “Cause no way in the world she could pick me out of a lineup”.
Tessa Kramer: The woman did pick him. And Mary Jane Burton testified at his trial…with the help of one of her favorite props…
Mary Jane Burton (Voice Actor): All right. Now, I don’t know if you can still see the remnants of the stain there. I cut out this portion. I identified spermatozoa heads again, and I determined the secretion type from this stain and I found that the secretions in the stain were type B.
Prosecutor (Voice Actor): “B” like in boy?
Mary Jane Burton: “B” like in boy.
Tessa Kramer: These are voice actors, re-creating Mary Jane’s testimony from Earl’s trial. Mary Jane is talking about a semen stain found at the crime scene. She says that the attacker was a type B secretor…
Prosecutor: What percentage of the male population are type B secretors?
Mary Jane Burton: About eight percent of the population. That means about eight people in every hundred would be type B secretors.
Prosecutor: And you’re saying eight rather than eighty?
Mary Jane Burton: Eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Tessa Kramer: 8% sounds like a small number, but that’s still thousands of people. Maybe millions. On cross-examination, Earl’s defense attorney did raise this point, asking: “Do you know how many millions of men that would be?” Mary Jane’s response: “No, sir, I don’t.” The attorney didn’t press further. So…not exactly a vigorous defense.
And – just listen to the end of Mary Jane’s testimony with the prosecutor:
Prosecutor: Now, do these tests that you do ever narrow it down to one person?
Mary Jane Burton: No, sir. It’s a means of eliminating a wrongly accused person. So in other words, for instance, if some person with type A secretions were accused, then I would say that he would be eliminated by my tests because my tests showed that seminal fluid would be from a person with type B secretions.
Prosecutor: And what is the secretion type of the defendant?
Mary Jane Burton: Type B.
Prosecutor: No further questions, your honor.
Tessa Kramer: I find this interaction disturbing. It’s subtle, but the way Mary Jane says “wrongly accused = type A” and “this defendant = type B” …it’s factually correct, but a type B person could also be wrongly accused…as we now definitively know Earl Ruffin was. This feels more like theater than science.
It reminds me of a standard play on my high school volleyball team: the bump, set, spike. The ball comes flying over the net, you bump it to your teammate. They gently pass it back – setting you up perfectly to spike the ball down over the net.
Doesn’t that seem like what Mary Jane and the prosecutor are doing here? Mary Jane bumps the facts: The perpetrator is type B. The prosecutor sets her up with the perfect question: And what type is the defendant? Mary Jane spikes it down: Type B. Bump, set, spike. No further questions.
Earl was convicted and given five life sentences.
Julius Earl Ruffin: It’s just like somebody had threw a cinder block over top of my head. I just knew I was gone. You know? I stood up and I turned around and I looked at my family, and then I had to sit down because like, it’s just like it took the wind out of me, had taken the life out of me. I said, what am I going to do now?
Tessa Kramer: Earl was convicted several years after Gina started sounding the alarm about Mary Jane Burton. The contrast is so striking: a jury taking just seven minutes to send a man to prison for life – versus Gina’s fight wearing on, month after month, the lab dragging its feet and taking no action. And all the while, Mary Jane is allowed to continue working cases…
Gina Demas: When things got really tense, she was not comfortable working in the same room with us cause she knew we were watching her. So she just started working mostly on the weekends. But she did it when I first started. She was always working on the weekends in Charlotte, too.
Sophie Bearman (to Gina): When no one was there?
Gina Demas: Mhmm.
Tessa Kramer: We heard about this from a number of Mary Jane’s co-workers – though, always as an example of how hardworking she was. According to Gina, this starts to create real problems around chain of custody. Chain of custody is super important – and exactly what it sounds like:
Gina Demas: When evidence was brought into the lab, we used to have to sign for the evidence from the police officer. You had to go and sign all the property forms and bring the evidence into the lab.
Tessa Kramer: For a piece of evidence to even be admissible in court, you have to be able to prove that nobody tampered with it.
Gina Demas: If you can’t prove where it was every second? That can get a case thrown right out of court.
Tessa Kramer: Think about it. The lab is processing tons of evidence every day…Moving samples in and out of freezers and test tubes…Obviously, it is critical not to mix anything up. So they use these property forms to track exactly what happens to the evidence: who received it from the police, what condition it was in, who they handed it off to for testing.
But when Mary Jane came in to work on the weekend, she’d just take the evidence out of storage, do who knows what with it, and put it back, without waiting for anyone to sign off on the property forms to track the chain of custody…without anyone to confirm that nothing fishy could’ve happened to the evidence.
Gina Demas: When we would come in on Monday morning, she would say, “Here I need you to sign this property form.” And the evidence would be tampered with. You know, did somebody else come into the lab and tamper with it? Probably not, but am I going to get up on there and say, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, this is exactly in the condition that I handed it to her in?” No. Not doing it. So because we wouldn’t sign it, she started forging my name on the property form.
Tessa Kramer: Gina’s recollection is the only evidence we have of Mary Jane falsifying signatures – but we do have a letter that Gina wrote to Warren Johnson outlining a number of complaints including “lax” chain of custody.
This letter is actually kind of interesting. Gina writes: “A process of examination and re-examination of methods and procedures must be constant in order to maintain the respect of the police agencies and the public whom we serve.”
I mean, she’s totally right. But at the same time, Gina’s a trainee – and she’s writing memos to the head of the Bureau of Forensic Science with a laundry list of complaints about how the lab is run. And with these important scientific protocols, she lumps in a bunch of other stuff. Like, that their salaries are not competitive. So I wonder if that played a role in the lab kinda waving her off.
That said, Mary Jane was caught erasing and changing results. The lab was responsible for this, for her. Seems hard to wave that off. But the higher-ups won’t budge.
Gina Demas: They were like ex-FBI. Remember I told you, Hoover?
Tessa Kramer: Yeah.
Gina Demas: You know, whatever you think that was like? It was like, and here’s two cartoon guys…right from the FBI.
Tessa Kramer: This is 1977 – just a few years after the Watergate scandal. And here comes this idealistic 24-year-old who’s teaching disco lessons at lunchtime – going up against a bunch of middle-aged FBI-types. This comes to a head in a meeting with the director of the entire Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, Dr. Albert Tiedemann.
Gina Demas: It was multiple people on one side of a desk. And me on the other side. And I always felt like some little tiny person up against this bunch of people, you know? There’s my boss – Mary Jane – Warren Johnson, Bob Edwards, Dr. Tiedemann. Dr. Tiedemann had two bosses in the state: Department of Health, Governor. So that’s how high up that went.
I was trying to explain to them, “I’m not talking about some esoteric, wild tests that she’s running. I’m talking about basic scientific principles.” And they just didn’t want to hear it. And just kind of told me, “You know, you’re not being a team player.” And he asked me, “What would your father say about you causing all this ruckus? You’re not being a team player.” And I said, “This is not the kind of team I want to play on.”
And then he said, “Well you know,” he said, “I can fire you, I can take your job away.” I said, “Dr. Tiedemann,” I said, “I can get a job as a waitress and make more money than I’m making here.” I said, “If you want to take the job, take it. It’s not going to change anything I’m saying.”
Being responsible for somebody else’s life, or death. I took that so seriously and I don’t know what everybody else was thinking. I never could wrap my head around that. Why it didn’t matter. Why they would want to be so callous and so cavalier with somebody’s evidence.
Who’s going to fight for those people? It’s not like they’re movie stars or politicians or what’s considered an important person. They’re usually poor. They might’ve gotten in trouble. You know, most of the people that brush up against the law don’t do it just one time. Some people have been in trouble before. But they’re mostly poor and they’re mostly…a lot of them are Black and people just don’t…they’re not going to go after it.
Tessa Kramer: Gina couldn’t wrap her head around this; why no one at the lab seemed to care about the concerns she was raising about the state’s Chief Serologist. But Shirley – the lab secretary – has a pretty good guess.
Shirley Patterson: When you look at it from an overall State of Virginia point of view, if that was to get out, they would have to reopen every one of her cases. I mean, everyone would have the right to reopen their case. And needless to say, that would cost a lot of money. And see, Forensic didn’t want that! Politics is politics, you know?
Tessa Kramer: If the lab were to admit to problems with Mary Jane’s work – especially any kind of evidence tampering or falsifying of results – even in a single case – that would cast doubt on every case she’d ever worked. It’s clear to Gina that this problem isn’t going to get solved internally. So – after the break – she takes her fight outside the lab…
Gina Demas: I probably should have been more scared than I was, I guess, because think about who I was suing. I was suing the freaking crime lab.
Tessa Kramer: After months of arguing with the lab’s directors, Gina takes matters into her own hands. She finds an attorney who offers to help her out pretty much pro bono. And they get to work on a lawsuit, making the case that the lab was retaliating against Gina for trying to blow the whistle on this misconduct. That they wouldn’t give her the raise or the promotion that she deserved.
Gina Demas: It was a harassment lawsuit because, as I started trying to get somebody to fix this stuff, I started getting called in the office for safety violations, like I had open-toed shoes in the lab…
Tessa Kramer: Gina’s the only one named on the lawsuit – but she says everyone else in the serology department was backing her up.
Gina Demas: Joan Faunce, Deanne Dabbs, Elmer Gist and June Brown. So that’s all the serologists in the state. The entire serology department was willing to go to trial against them. And was I so damn powerful as an intern that I turned the entire serology department of the forensic lab in Virginia to saying bad things about Mary Jane? That’s some powerful shit.
Tessa Kramer: Because Gina’s the only one named on the suit, it’s a little tough to say just how involved the others were. Like, were they in the ring with Gina, fighting side-by-side? Or were they kinda cheering her on from the sidelines? Gina says it’s the former. And Shirley, the secretary – always the fly on the wall – says the same:
Shirley Patterson: You know it was a joint thing. I mean they would all meet with this attorney. They would come in from out of town. They talked about they were going to go have dinner, cause it was done like, after work.
Tessa Kramer: Away from the eyes and ears of the lab, they start building their case. They meet with the lawyer…
Gina Demas: Getting our documents in order…
Tessa Kramer: They start secretly going into the lab’s old case files, finding more and more cases with evidence of Mary Jane’s errors…
Gina Demas: And it was case after case after case with no controls…It was hundreds.
Tessa Kramer: In October 1977, they file the lawsuit. It quickly makes the news. Gina says she was even interviewed on TV.
Gina Demas: There was this one detective who was really probably one of the best ones in Richmond; his name was Harding. And he stopped me in the parking lot and said, “Is all that stuff you said in that interview true?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Doesn’t she understand that sometimes we give her stuff so that somebody can be eliminated?” And I said, “No. So don’t.” And he just shook his head.
Tessa Kramer: It seems like people are starting to pay attention. And all the while, the lawsuit is making its way through the court system. The Attorney General’s office gets involved representing the crime lab, and the case gets assigned to a judge who Gina thinks might be favorable to her. A few years back he’d been considered “the most hated man in Richmond” for ordering school desegregation.
Gina Demas: I always felt like if we could get our things out in the open, our day in court, so to speak, that things would get fixed. I always thought that.
Tessa Kramer: Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. The Attorney General’s office responds to the lawsuit with a massive discovery request. Gina and her lawyer miss a key deadline to respond, and the judge dismisses the case. They file again a few months later. This time, Gina sits down with someone from the Attorney General’s office, with evidence in hand.
Gina Demas: We had stacks about this high. Several stacks that I gave to Marshall Coleman.
Tessa Kramer: J. Marshall Coleman – the Attorney General. One of his deputies spends two days questioning Gina.
Gina Demas: He was such a jerk, the guy that was doing it. He was screaming at me.
Tessa Kramer: At this point, it’s the summer of 1978. This legal battle has been going on almost a year. But even with depositions and stacks of evidence, the judge dismisses the second lawsuit. There’s a legal doctrine that says you can’t try the same case twice – and the judge decided Gina’s claims weren’t substantially different this time around, even with some new harassment claims. And…case closed.
Shirley Patterson: After the case fell through, the others kind of abandoned Gina. Oh…I don’t know how to say this. It’s almost like Gina was on a blacklist. You know, it’s like so many were involved and then all of a sudden it’s like she had leprosy or something. I don’t know. It was really – I know that was hurtful to her. I guess they felt like they had to look out for themselves.
Tessa Kramer: Given how the lab retaliated against Gina – I can see why her coworkers might’ve felt that way.
Shirley Patterson: When everything went down, they transferred Gina out. I mean, she was totally taken from forensics. She was put into product testing in the ABC lab.
Tessa Kramer: The Alcoholic Beverage Control lab.
Gina Demas: When they booted me out of the serology lab, the state police came in and escorted me out and took everything that was in my desk. All the papers, rulers, everything.
Tessa Kramer: “Everything” nearly included the copies of the record books.
Gina Demas: The way the lab worked, it was locked. And you had to go to a guard at the front and get passed through. So we were all back in the lab and we got a call from the guard. They called us and said, “They’re on their way back!”
Tessa Kramer: The state police come in and escort her out of the lab.
Gina Demas: I was out. Boom.
Tessa Kramer: Luckily, the box of documents was in a coworker’s desk.
Gina Demas: So she just left the lab with it.
Tessa Kramer: So Gina’s got the documents, but there’s really nothing more she can do. And, as Shirley tells us, Gina’s not exactly living out her Perry Mason dreams over at the ABC lab.
Shirley Patterson: I would walk over there and talk with her and see her, and what she was doing was just so petty. She was just sampling beverages – you know when they say it’s 80 proof or 90 proof or whatever. I mean, she’s an intelligent woman. She didn’t have any business in that ABC lab at all. I mean, I took it as a punishment for her.
Gina Demas: I was not the type of person as maybe Deanne and Joan….it would never been enough for me to just do mine correctly. If I knew that over in the corner, it was like Russian Roulette over there.
It was very disappointing. And I was disappointed in her as a person. I was really disappointed in all the administrative people. And just so disillusioned, and so young to be that disillusioned, you know, at 20-some years old?
Tessa Kramer: After about a year working in the ABC lab, Gina submits a letter of resignation to Dr. Paul Ferrara.
Gina Demas: If I had stayed, I would always have been like a marked woman. I was already branded as a troublemaker and whistleblower, which was toxic back then.
Tessa Kramer: Though, Gina can’t help taking one last shot on her way out the door. She requests a meeting with the head of the Department of Health.
Gina Demas: So I went, met with the guy, and I said, “Look, you can either listen to me or you can not listen to me. You can do something about it or you can not do something about it.” And he said, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said, “Well every time it comes up, I’m going to tell what happened,” and I said, “When they asked me who I told I’m just going to add your name to the list.” And I got up and walked out.
Shirley Patterson: I always wonder…I think Gina’s career would have been a good one.
Tessa Kramer: This was the end of Gina’s career in forensic science. She took a job as a sales rep for a dental supply company, and she’s been in sales pretty much ever since. But the others – the ones who Shirley says “kind of abandoned Gina” – they stuck around…
Shirley Patterson: The one that really amazes me that really her career just took off was Deanne Dabbs. She really made a name for herself. She came back very strong.
Tessa Kramer: Deanne was the other trainee who started about a year after Gina. And, like Gina, Deanne was also removed from the Richmond lab during this conflict. The lab sent her off to start a serology department in northern Virginia.
Shirley Patterson: They wanted them separated. They wanted everybody separated. That’s the impression I got.
Tessa Kramer: The lab did one other thing in response to Gina’s claims…
Shirley Patterson: They did bring Pete Marone in.
Tessa Kramer: Pete Marone is a big name in the world of forensics. He’d stay at the Virginia lab for about 35 years, eventually becoming the Director. And he’s hired right smack in the middle of this whole blowup as a new “Technical Advisor” to oversee the serology department. Or, if you ask Gina, to oversee Mary Jane.
Gina Demas: I had a lengthy conversation with him on the phone. And he told me that I shouldn’t be worried because he was checking all of Mary Jane’s work. So, I said, “Well,” I said, “I know of you, I know – you know, I trust you, so I’m just going to assume everything is being monitored at this point.”
Tessa Kramer: And Gina pretty much tries to go on with her life. But even all these years later, what happened at the Virginia lab still pisses her off.
Gina Demas: There were people who were in charge of that lab who knew that what I was saying was true. Dr. Ferrara was a chemist. He knew that this stuff wasn’t right. But he was a very good politician, also. And those two things don’t work together sometimes.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Politics and science?
Gina Demas: Mhmm. And at the level that those guys were at, it was more politics than science.
Tessa Kramer (VO): I’d really like to go talk to “those guys”… Problem is: most of them passed away a long time ago. There are two people we can talk to. There’s Deanne Dabbs…
Tessa Kramer (to Deanne): I guess my question is whether you think, given the concerns that there were, whether Mary Jane should have been allowed to continue working until 1988.
Deanne Dabbs: Ah, good Lord…
Tessa Kramer (VO): And there’s Pete Marone. The guy who told Gina she had nothing to worry about because he was checking Mary Jane’s work…
Sophie Bearman (to Pete): So maybe it’s not a coincidence that accreditation came right around the time that Mary Jane left…You’re nodding your head.
Pete Marone: Yeah. Because we knew we couldn’t do it before then. All the other ducks were in a row.
Tessa Kramer: That’s coming up next time on Admissible.
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.
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.
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.