Chapter 12: Something of this Magnitude?
As we come to the end of season one, reporter Tessa Kramer is left with some lingering questions. How are the injustices we’ve seen in this story woven into the DNA of our criminal legal system? Is there hope for genuine reform? And what role can forensics play?
Tessa Kramer (to Earl): Hello!
Julius Earl Ruffin: How y’all doing? How y’all doing? How y’all doing? How y’all doing?
Sophie Bearman: Good good good.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Reporter Sophie Bearman and I are meeting up with Earl Ruffin, the second man to be exonerated by Mary Jane Burton’s clippings. We’re at a high school gymnasium in Suffolk, Virginia.
(Gym noises from a basketball game play)
Tessa Kramer: Earl’s invited us to his stepdaughter Nylah’s basketball game.
Julius Earl Ruffin: Shoot the ball, Nylah. Let’s see if she makes these free throws. Spread them fingers and bend them knees. See how she leaned back after she shoot the free throw?
Tessa Kramer: 40 years ago, Earl was a star player.
Tessa Kramer (to Earl): When was the last time you played basketball?
Julius Earl Ruffin: Oh, it’s been a while since I played. When I first came home, I played.
Tessa Kramer (VO): “First came home” from Southampton State Prison. So much was taken away from Earl the day he was arrested in 1982. When he left work with two police officers, he assumed this mistake would get cleared up in no time. He didn’t go home again for 21 years. And when he did?
Julius Earl Ruffin: The investigating officer? No apologies. The district attorney? No apologies. My lawyer? No. The judge done passed away so I wasn’t expecting to hear nothing from him. And I ain’t never heard of a judge apologizing for sending nobody to prison. Never in my life. But anyway, uh, no. No apologies.
But if it was me? I would want to apologize. I would. Something of this magnitude? Something of this magnitude? 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? You can’t admit to the fact that you was wrong?
Tessa Kramer: There was one member of the jury who apologized to Earl in an anonymous letter. And then there was Ann – the woman who was assaulted.
Julius Earl Ruffin: She wrote me a letter. This was in May 2003. “Dear Mr. Ruffin. I thank God for the gift of DNA testing. I thank God for Miss Burton. Most of all I thank God for your strength and your persistence in finding justice. I do not know how to express my sorrow and my personal devastation…”
Tessa Kramer: It’s like she is trying to say sorry in every possible way she can think of.
Julius Earl Ruffin: “I am so sorry for the part I had in this injustice.”
Tessa Kramer: The letter is heartbreaking, especially knowing how much pain it caused Ann to learn that she’d misidentified Earl.
Julius Earl Ruffin: “I feel personal responsibility for your conviction and your incarceration.”
Tessa Kramer: He finishes reading and sets the letter down.
Julius Earl Ruffin: So…
Sophie Bearman: How do you feel? Like, I know it’s been a long time, but…
Julius Earl Ruffin: Well… it brings back memories, you know? I still…I feel the pain that I’ve suffered through all this injustice. And, I – I’m strong enough now just to live with it. I know that’s why I’m here today, doing this interview with y’all…That I’m man enough to handle it, you know? So, uh, uh…I’m okay. I’m okay. You know? Yes, I’m okay.
Tessa Kramer: As we come to the end of our 12-episode series, how much hope should we have that men like Earl Ruffin won’t be sitting for an interview like this 40 years from now? What’s being done to make sure the system gets it right? And what role can forensics play in that?
(Admissible theme plays)
Tessa Kramer: This is Admissible. I’m Tessa Kramer.
(Admissible theme ends)
Tessa Kramer: So, has DNA proved to be the revolution for forensics it was promised to be? In many ways… yes! When you look at DNA as a tool for crime scene investigation, especially when it comes to the kind of cases we’re talking about in this series – that is, violent crime, and even more specifically, stranger rapes – DNA technology has helped to improve the accuracy of convictions.
Nationally, if you look at convictions from the 80s – before forensic labs were using DNA – where someone was convicted and then exonerated years later with DNA analysis, there were 136 exonerations. Fast forward to the 2000s. Now, they’re using DNA analysis at the time of the crime, and it’s a different story. Between 2000 to 2009, this number drops to 12.
This isn’t the full picture. It’s one indicator. Many wrongful convictions never come to light, especially when there is no evidence left to do DNA testing. We’ve seen over and over in our story the many barriers to challenging a conviction, especially for people of color. Still, this is a dramatic change: from 136 to 12.
But is DNA “the panacea” as it’s also been called in this series? That…I’m not so sure about. When I showed defense attorney Jon Sheldon the copies of the lab’s record books, where Mary Jane had erased and changed results, his response really stuck with me.
Jon Sheldon: This is, uh…this is the worst kind of fraud that we always think exists and everyone says, “No, it doesn’t.” It’s rare to get the faker. The person who gets result X and they erase it and they write Y. But what you do get is the person who runs the test and they don’t get what they like and so they say, “Yeah you know I probably didn’t do that right.” So you go back and you do it again.
Tessa Kramer: And Jon says this happens even with DNA analysis.
Jon Sheldon: If you think about how they get their work and who they report it to…they get their work from the police. And you can’t usually get biological material without some background about it, ‘cause you need to know: Am I testing this ‘cause I care about is it male or female? Because I want to know is this a human or something else? You have to know something about the theory of the case.
And you need to know, “Well, what I really want to know is: does this from the jeans match this Q-tip?” Because the Q-tip is from the guy and the jeans swab is from the girl. You are a part of law enforcement because you’re co-opted by your clients. These are your clients. It doesn’t have to be – it would be easy to separate the testing from the theory of guilt, but they don’t do it.
Tessa Kramer: I heard this over and over. The science has gotten better. But forensic labs are still far too enmeshed with law enforcement. And analysts are still far too susceptible to influence and implicit bias.
William Thompson: The problem is that the labs are setting up their procedures in a way that allows for these elements of bias to creep in.
Tessa Kramer: This is William Thompson, who studies the human factors involved in forensic science.
William Thompson: They’re not doing their work in a way that’s adequately rigorous and scientific and that insulates them from external pressures. And then you have this phenomenon where you keep seeing, you know, the apples just keep going bad in the same familiar ways. You see it over and over again.
Tessa Kramer: These stories of “bad apples” crop up in labs across the country – in all sorts of forensic disciplines. As I have been reporting this story, I kept having the feeling that I had to keep zooming out and out and out just to see the scope of the problem here. And you can see the scale at which this may be playing out in headline after headline.
[Archival]: …trial testimony of an Oklahoma chemist was false. Now hundreds of cases in which she testified are under review.
[Archival]: In Chicago, a police crime lab analyst named Pamela Fish disregarded exculpatory blood testing.
[Archival]: A Chemist testing drugs in the state crime lab in Massachusetts spent years getting high on the job.
[Archival]: Now, the DC auditor says part of the problem is that the crime lab has failed to operate independently, as it is supposed to.
[Archival]: …former state chemist, who admitted to faking tests and identifying evidence as illegal narcotics without even testing the evidence.
[Archival]: It is alleged that Zain faked data, concocted results and testified using phony blood evidence in hundreds of felony trials.
[Archival]: Any testimonial or documentary evidence offered by Zain at any time should be deemed invalid, unreliable, and inadmissible.
Maneka Sinha: We have seen too many bad actors in the forensic world to be able to say this is just an aberration, rather than really confronting what is truly a systemic problem.
Tessa Kramer: Maneka Sinha is a law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in forensics.
Maneka Sinha: We have a tendency to think of forensics like maybe it’s the clean part of the criminal legal system, even if there are dirty parts like police brutality and racism and prosecutorial misconduct. But that’s not the case.
Tessa Kramer: More on that after the break.
Tessa Kramer: A few months ago, I read a paper that Maneka Sinha published about forensics reform, and I was eager to talk to her.
Maneka Sinha: I remember vividly in my first couple of weeks as a public defender, sitting in the classroom that we used for training, and this mentor of mine coming in and doing the first class I ever had on forensics and my mind being blown right then and there.
Tessa Kramer: Maneka started her career as a public defender in Washington, DC. That’s where her skepticism of forensics started to take root.
Maneka Sinha: When you’re in law school, for the most part, you don’t learn anything about forensics whatsoever. And you go into practice with all the same assumptions that lay people do, which are that this stuff is really reliable. That everything is really accurate, and it’s as clear and black-and-white as the ding, ding, ding you see on CSI. And I remember him walking us through the flaws in these various disciplines, up to and including DNA, which is considered the most reliable of all forensic methods.
I remember when I got to this place of like, “I’m starting to see these flaws. I’m starting to get that these are flaws.” And then going into a courtroom and trying to have this conversation with a judge and just feeling like I was banging my head against the wall because either they didn’t see it, or they didn’t want to see it, or they refused to see it.
But that moment I also remember vividly of, like, standing in a courtroom next to my client and having that feeling of, like, wanting to look left and then wanting to look right, like, “Is anybody with me on this?” And there being nobody in the room who was with me.
Tessa Kramer: Over the decade she spent doing public defense, she grew increasingly disillusioned.
Maneka Sinha: We would call the lab and ask to speak with the analyst and they would flat out refuse to talk to us. We would be asking for the work. We would be asking for their notes, their worksheets, all of the things that support their conclusions. And it was a constant battle.
Tessa Kramer: Maneka was dealing with a lab that was officially run by the DC police department – it wasn’t an independent agency like the Virginia lab. Although, there’s debate over how much difference quote unquote “lab independence” really makes. One thing that’s not up for debate?
Maneka Sinha: There’s really no dispute that Black communities, other communities of color, poor communities, other marginalized communities, are disparately affected at all stages of the criminal legal system. Black and brown communities are policed more. They are searched more. They are arrested more. They get worse plea offers. They are convicted more. They are wrongfully convicted more – all disproportionately more, even when you control for other factors. Every single one of those phases that I just described is influenced by technology.
Tessa Kramer: Forensics is technology. It is scientific knowledge used as a tool for law enforcement. And crime labs are designed to help with the investigation of crimes. But when you look at the racial makeup of who’s being convicted, the disproportionate impacts on people of color are obvious. And I should say – of those 13 exonerees we’ve been talking about in this series? Eleven of them were Black.
So how do we address the systemic problems with forensics? This is a question I put to a lot of people…
Brandon Garrett: You need to change policies going forward and not just reopen old cases.
Tessa Kramer: There are some ideas out there for how to improve things…from academics like Brandon Garrett – who you just heard. He also says we need better judicial rules – making sure juries understand how reliable a particular technique is and how reliable a particular expert is.
Brandon Garrett: And we don’t know that. We have no idea whether this is a really good expert that gets fingerprints right all the time, or whether this person is a total disaster and shouldn’t be trusted in court.
Tessa Kramer: The Innocence Project’s Peter Neufeld says there are ways forensic labs could keep tabs on the quality of the analysts’ work.
Peter Neufeld: We have advocated for 30 years for blind external testing, where you submit specimens as if it was a real case so the people in the laboratory don’t know whether it’s a real case or they’re being tested.
Tessa Kramer: Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle is a big advocate for oversight boards…
Ken Stolle: if you have a policy team and you have 10 people thinking about it, it’s better than having one person have total say-so over that.
Tessa Kramer: These kinds of measures would definitely help. And, listen, I’m pro-science. Not “junk sciences” that have been discredited, but real science? Like DNA analysis? I’m all in. I think science has the potential to be a check on weaker parts of the criminal legal system. Just think of all the cracks in the system that DNA has already exposed.
But, talking to Maneka…it got me thinking if we really want science to play a role in correcting the flawed processes and biases of our system? We need to dig a lot deeper.
Maneka Sinha: These little tweaks at the margins aren’t gonna quote unquote “fix” anything because the system is doing what it was designed to do.
Tessa Kramer: And what is the system designed to do? Maneka says there’s a strain of thinking that’s been gaining momentum…
Maneka Sinha: …and it starts with the idea that the entire carceral system has its origins in white supremacy, in our system of chattel slavery. It served an explicit purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy. And so there’s a tension between traditional reform, or conventional sorts of reforms, and more radical approaches that really confront the origins of the system, seek to minimize harm, seek to contract the system and de-legitimize the system rather than expand it. Maybe it’s time for a little bit more of a radical rethinking of how we’re doing this.
Tessa Kramer (to Maneka): I wanted to ask how hopeful you personally feel about the prospects of reform.
Maneka Sinha: You don’t wanna ask me that.
Tessa Kramer (VO): I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. When I started reporting on Mary Jane Burton and the 13 exonerations, I kept getting the same warning: you’re opening Pandora’s box. Now that we’ve opened the box, let’s talk about how that myth ends.
So, as the story goes, Pandora opens the box, and all these evil forces come flying out into the world. But what I didn’t know is that, according to the original telling, not everything escapes. Pandora slams the lid with one thing left inside: hope.
Now, what does that mean? That’s been the source of some debate. Is the world left without hope? Because it’s trapped in the box? Or did Pandora save hope? Is hope all that we’re left with, after all the evils have been unleashed?
Even though this is the last episode of this season, we’re not going to stop reporting. I hope to have updates for you – on future seasons of this show – about some action from the State: an investigation by the lab or, ideally, someone outside the lab. We’ve reached out to Virginia’s Governor, several members of the state legislature, other lawmakers…So far, we haven’t gotten much of a response.
We did get one lawmaker on the record.
Don Scott: So Mary Jane Burton was initially treated as a hero?
Tessa Kramer: In March 2023, VPM state politics reporter Ben Paviour and I spoke with Virginia State Delegate Don Scott. He’s the head of the House Democratic caucus. Perhaps we got Scott’s attention because he’s also a practicing attorney. He’s done a lot of criminal defense work, and so he’s dealt with the Virginia crime lab himself.
Don Scott: I scrutinize everything when it comes to these folks cause I just don’t – I don’t trust the system. I’m – I’m a natural cynic and a skeptic anyway. So, I naturally don’t trust anything they give me.
Ben Paviour: What, what caused that skepticism for you?
Don Scott: I’m a Black man in America. What are you talking about? I mean, I already know the system is not designed for us to necessarily get equal justice all the time. So you have to be extra diligent to make sure that folks don’t have an agenda that does not include you getting some justice.
Tessa Kramer (to Don): Yeah, you don’t seem that surprised by what we’ve uncovered.
Don Scott: This is my life. I mean, I know how the system works, and it just, it can eat people up. She had all of those cases – 15 years of cases – and all of those folks knew that she was a problem and they knew that she wasn’t following basic lab protocol. They knew that they couldn’t get accredited while she was there. They knew that she was falsifying information and they did nothing about it.
Ben Paviour: Do you think that says anything about Virginia’s culture at the time?
Don Scott: Not about Virginia, it’s about America. I mean, come on man. Let’s not be naive. This happens…this is about weakness and power and race. Those who are weak, those who get preyed upon. And so this is not unusual. This happens all over the country. You can go to any state, it’s probably the same. But I think what we’re doing is we’re making some inroads. We just have to keep chopping wood, keep holding people accountable. You know, I’m a cynic, but I’m an optimistic cynic. I want to keep working and getting done, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this business.
Tessa Kramer (VO): I’m reminded of something Gina Demas said the first time I met her, about why she thinks the people in charge of the lab didn’t do anything about Mary Jane Burton.
Gina Demas: But nobody cared.. because who was it, mostly? Poor people, Black people, mostly. “Who gives a shit?” Oh, and you used to hear this all the time: “If they didn’t do this, they did something else. They’re criminals.”
Tessa Kramer: Before our interview ends, I share this with Don Scott.
Tessa Kramer (to Don): …the people being convicted were people of color. They were usually people without a lot of money, you know, who weren’t considered powerful or important.
Don Scott: Welcome to America, baby.
– CREDITS –
We’re hard at work on season two of Admissible. Visit our website at admissible.vpm.org, where you can find additional information or share tips and suggestions.
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. 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, Chioke I’Anson, Kelly Jones, John and Eileen Kramer, and iHeartMedia’s Beth Anne Macaluso and Dylan Fagan.
Extra special thanks to Danielle Ferly and Brian Horne for reading trial transcripts, and to Alexandra Cohl for PR and marketing support.
Admissible, season 1: Shreds of Evidence is produced by Story Mechanics and VPM, Virginia’s home for public media. We are distributed by iHeartMedia.