Chapter 1: The Holy Cow Moment
DNA was a revolution for crime solving and for one mother, it could be the key to proving her son’s innocence. Her journey leads to a much larger story – one full of scandals and secrets. What follows is an astounding series of events surrounding the work of one trailblazing forensic analyst, Mary Jane Burton.
Tessa Kramer: It’s July 1988. This Arlington, Virginia courtroom is packed. It’s a high-profile capital murder trial. And the media is here for it.
[Archival]: Timothy Spencer denies he’s Richmond’s serial killer. Denies he tied, raped, and strangled two Southside women in their own home.
Tessa Kramer: Less than a year earlier, there had been a string of gruesome murders across the state. The attacks had strikingly similar details – an M.O. that earned this serial killer a nickname from the press.
[Archival]: It’s the first Richmond woman to fall victim to the man described as the Southside Strangler.
Tessa Kramer: After months of investigation, police had finally zeroed in on a suspect, Timothy Spencer. But there was nothing directly linking him to the crimes… except for a new kind of forensic evidence.
[Archival]: …on a new technological breakthrough called DNA fingerprinting.
Tessa Kramer: The state’s entire case hinged on DNA. Today, many of us think of DNA as the most reliable kind of evidence. But back in 1988? This was a gamble.
[Archival]: Genetic fingerprinting is being used to try and prove the case against an accused serial killer, Timothy Spencer. It may be the first time it’s used in the nation.
Tessa Kramer: With all eyes on that Virginia courtroom, the state makes its case.
[Archival]: State Prosecutor Helen Fahey told a jury Spencer left little evidence behind but he left a part of himself…It took the jury about five hours to return a guilty verdict using DNA evidence.
Tessa Kramer: The state’s gamble pays off – the jury is convinced by the DNA evidence. This conviction sparks a revolution for the work done in crime laboratories. DNA analysis would quickly become the gold standard, replacing older, less precise forensic methods.
Our story is not about the Southside Strangler – it’s about one forensic scientist who worked on the case. She’s from the earlier era of forensics – the pre-DNA era that this trial brought to a swift conclusion. And she’s a mystery that I’ve been unraveling. Her story illuminates something that’s been hiding in plain sight all along.
I’m Tessa Kramer. I’m a reporter and a producer. And as I started investigating the work of this forensic analyst, there’s a phrase that came up over and over again.
Sa’ad El-Amin: This is really Pandora’s box!
Phil Evans: All you’re doing is opening up a Pandora’s box.
Katie Geren: It’s Pandora’s box, you know, it’s scary.
Mike Herring: This is probably opening Pandora’s box.
Larry Hockman: Now we’ve just going to open Pandora’s box and see what flies out.
Tessa Kramer: I tracked down that box. Because in my case, this is a literal cardboard box, spilling over with documents.
Sophie Bearman: Look at all this.
Tessa Kramer: Holy s***. This is a lot.
Sophie Bearman: This is a lot
Tessa Kramer: I’ve been carrying it around with me for about four years now, poring over the documents, trying to figure out what it all means. What are the implications of releasing its contents? Because that’s what we are going to do in this podcast.
The whole point of Pandora’s box – like, the original Greek myth – is that you’re not supposed to open the box. Because doing so will release unforeseen troubles into the world. But as I’m looking at this box, I can’t help but wonder: Why would someone want the box to stay shut? What is it that they don’t want us to see?
[Admissible theme plays]
Tessa Kramer: This is Admissible. A podcast about evidence.
Gina Demas: It’s like having a ticking time bomb sitting under your desk. If anybody finds out what happened, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, here it comes.
[Admissible theme ends]
Marvin Anderson: Ok, um, my name is Marvin Anderson.
Tessa Kramer: In the summer of 1982 Marvin Anderson is eighteen years old living in Hanover County, Virginia. He’s just finished his junior year of high school. He’s working a shift at Kings Dominion Amusement Park, the day two police officers show up.
Marvin Anderson: Supervisor came down to my ride and said they needed to see me in the office. Next thing I know the officers came in.
Tessa Kramer: One of the officers begins asking questions:
Marvin Anderson: “What do you know about the rape that occurred?” And I said, “Man, I don’t know anything, but I heard guys talking about it. But I don’t know what happened.” And then he kind of got a little deeper tone in his voice when he asked the next question: “Where were you at such and such a time?” And I kind of looked at him like, you know, “What’s going on? What – what is going on?”
Tessa Kramer: What was going on was that a young, white woman had been attacked by a stranger, and raped in the woods behind her apartment a few days earlier. The attack was brutal, and I won’t go into the details – but one detail is important. It’s the detail that the police fixated on.
The attacker reportedly told the victim that she reminded him of his – quote – “white girlfriend.” At the time, Marvin – who is Black – was dating a white woman.
Marvin Anderson: Back then Hanover was the type of town – and I still feel it still is – but, you know, interracial couples? It didn’t mix well.
Tessa Kramer: How many other interracial couples would you say you knew at that time?
Marvin Anderson: Um. None. If there were, it wasn’t known. So, when the crime took place, I was the first person they looked at.
Tessa Kramer: The case goes to trial. After just one day, the jury – all white – finds Marvin guilty and recommends a sentence of 210 years in prison.
Marvin Anderson: I turned around to look at my mom and my family and they was sitting right behind me, this close, and I couldn’t see them. Everything just went dark, and I could feel them putting the handcuffs and the shackles on me, and I couldn’t see anyone.
Joan Anderson: It was like a nightmare. It was like a nightmare. I mean I was hysterical, you know? My son just got 210 years for a crime he didn’t do.
Tessa Kramer: That’s Marvin’s mother, Joan Anderson.
Marvin didn’t do it. I’m telling you that up front because I’m not here to solve this case – this isn’t a “whodunnit”. Marvin’s case is the first domino in our story, setting off a chain of events with implications for thousands of cases – a chain of events that would eventually lead me to my own Pandora’s Box.
And it all starts with Joan Anderson.
Joan Anderson: I went from about 147 pounds down to about 118 pounds in less than a month. I was just like a brown ghost…And then one day I said stop crying and go fight. And that’s what I did. Start fighting.
Tessa Kramer: At first, Joan has a singular focus:
Joan Anderson: Pop Lincoln. Alias John Otis Lincoln.
Tessa Kramer: John Otis Lincoln had a record of similar assaults, and there were eyewitnesses – people who knew him – who saw him steal a bicycle later found at the crime scene. I found the detectives’ original suspect list – Marvin is number six. And number one? John Otis Lincoln.
Joan Anderson: Yeah, they knew this. They knew all of this. And then the Commonwealth Attorney, when we went to court another time, he said, “Well we knew who committed the crime, but it’s left up to your attorney to prove it.” And my mouth was like…
Tessa Kramer: Joan says her jaw practically hit the ground. But the moment that Marvin was convicted, he was legally guilty unless someone could prove otherwise. So, Joan’s like, “Alright, if they need proof, I’m gonna get it. What about fingerprints on that bicycle found at the crime scene?” If she could get Lincoln’s fingerprint, and match it to the bike, that might be enough to clear Marvin. So, she comes up with a plan.
Joan Anderson: Coke had a new product and I went there where I knew Lincoln was.
Tessa Kramer: Joan says she marched right up to Lincoln’s door – that’s the actual perpetrator’s door – pretending to be a saleswoman for Coca Cola.
Joan Anderson: And I was just asking him had they tried the new Coke product. “No.” You know? But he wouldn’t take it. He didn’t take no soda.
Tessa Kramer: It didn’t work – she didn’t get Lincoln’s fingerprint – but the tenacity of this just blows me away. Joan keeps trying everything she can think of, but she’s striking out. In 1987, John Otis Lincoln even confessed to one of Marvin’s attorneys, Sa’ad El-Amin.
Sa’ad El-Amin: There was a lot of hanky panky with the case and being very familiar with Hanover County and the disparate treatment of African-American defendants in criminal cases, I smelled a rat.
Tessa Kramer: Sa’ad El-Amin was a seasoned defense attorney – with more than 10 years of experience in Virginia’s criminal legal system. He sees the historical roots of the state throwing the book at a young, Black defendant with no criminal record.
Sa’ad El-Amin: Virginia tried to reduce its lynching, but they substituted the court for the community. And the whole idea was, let’s create this deterrent, which costs you your life, of any Black man having any familiarity with a white woman. This is in the DNA of the so-called criminal justice system and when you call it a criminal justice system, that’s an oxymoron.
Tessa Kramer: John Otis Lincoln later said this is why he confessed – because he was infuriated by the blatant racism on display in Marvin’s case.
Sa’ad El-Amin: He said, I’m the one! And Marvin is innocent!
Tessa Kramer: They bring Lincoln to court. Joan, Marvin, his lawyers are all in the room. Lincoln confesses with details that only the perpetrator could know, but the judge doesn’t buy it.
Sa’ad El-Amin: This – this is an abomination! The evidence was right there!
Joan Anderson: You know my heart just dropped. How…how do you allow something like that to happen in your courthouse? And when you know it’s a lie?
Tessa Kramer: At this point, they’re pretty much out of options. But then, the national media starts to report on a new advance in forensic science.
[Archival]: An extraordinary new type of scientific evidence.
[Archival]: Controversial technique known as DNA fingerprinting. The kind of evidence not available to Sherlock Holmes and other legendary sleuths of the past.
[Archival]: The use of DNA fingerprinting has exploded. Police around the country are hungry to have it.
[Archival]: It is going to revolutionize the criminal justice system.
Tessa Kramer: In the wake of that pivotal Southside Strangler conviction, DNA changes everything.
Charlie Rose: A new era of high-tech crime fighting has apparently arrived. It is called DNA testing, or genetic fingerprinting.
Tessa Kramer: I imagine people like Joan Anderson sitting at home, watching news coverage of the Southside Strangler conviction – like this 1988 Charlie Rose interview with the head of Virginia’s lab, Dr. Paul Ferrara. A name that will come up a lot in our story.
Charlie Rose: Tell me about the Virginia, your, your…why, what are the ramifications of this? No, hold on, let me rephrase that. What are we talking about, DNA testing?
Tessa Kramer: I love this interview – it captures so much. Charlie Rose sounds completely baffled by DNA and Dr. Paul Ferrara – I mean, talk about big scientist energy.
Paul Ferrara: Hithertofore, most of the evidence analyzed in forensic laboratories – crime laboratories – with the exception of fingerprints – they didn’t really point to individuals.
Tessa Kramer: For people like Joan and Marvin? DNA has a flipside. If DNA could point to an individual, maybe it could clear an individual, too. Joan hears about some lawyers in New York who are starting to pursue DNA-based exonerations: The Innocence Project. They agree to take on Marvin’s case, but there’s one problem.
Joan Anderson: They have no evidence.
Tessa Kramer: The police had long since destroyed the rape kit, and all the physical evidence in Marvin’s case, per standard protocol. Joan being Joan, she wants to check for herself. She says that she searched high and low, calling anyone who might have a shred of evidence.
The court where Marvin was tried:
Joan Anderson: Hanover County had nothing.
Tessa Kramer: The police department:
Joan Anderson: Found nothing.
Tessa Kramer: She even writes to the Governor’s office:
Joan Anderson: He said it didn’t have anything. Well, did you pull his file? Yeah, didn’t have anything, just didn’t have anything. It all ended up everybody’s hands was tied. Why can’t somebody untie these hands?
Peter Neufeld: We investigated and looked for the evidence and we couldn’t find it. And, uh, I was ready to close the case.
Tessa Kramer: This is Peter Neufeld – co-founder of the Innocence Project – giving a talk a few years ago. He says that the law students helping out on Marvin’s case convinced him not to give up.
Peter Neufeld: The students kept saying to me, no, no, no, you can’t close this case. We’ve met Mr. Anderson in prison. We’ve met, more importantly, Mr. Anderson’s mother. We should all have mothers like Marvin Anderson, okay? She’s one of the most extraordinary people I’ve met doing this work over the last 30 years. And…and they said you just can’t do it.
Tessa Kramer: In 2001, Neufeld agrees to make a final plea to that guy with Big Scientist Energy: Dr. Paul Ferrara.
Peter Neufeld: I talked to the head of the state crime laboratory and said, “Well you know maybe if you went back and looked at the analyst’s notebooks from 1982 there’ll be some indication that she didn’t send it back to the county, that it went someplace else.” So, the next day, all of a sudden, I get a call from the head of the laboratory, he had gone to the archives.
Paul Ferrara: I think I asked him, “Are you sitting down? Because I’ve got some news for you.”
Peter Neufeld: “You won’t believe this, she violated the rules, and she scotch taped the evidence from the rape kit in her notebook.”
Paul Ferrara: Holy cow! We still got some of this evidence.
Tessa Kramer: Buried in Marvin’s case file, Dr. Ferrara finds a row of clippings taped to the bottom of a worksheet. Tiny bits of clothing and cotton swabs, left over from the original forensic scientist’s serology testing way back in the 80s. Just scotch-taped to a piece of paper! A piece of paper that was slipped into a file folder and shipped off to the State Records Center.
All those years that Joan had been searching for proof – all the people who told her there was nothing left — all that time, evidence was there, gathering dust in a file folder. I guess it just took a phone call from the right person.
By this time, Marvin’s out on parole. He’d served 15 years before being released. He’s getting by as best he can as a felon and a registered sex offender. He has to wear an ankle monitor and have regular check-ins with his parole officer, but he’d found work as a long-haul trucker. That’s what he’s doing when Peter Neufeld calls to tell him that they found his evidence.
Marvin Anderson: It was during rush hour traffic. I was driving an 18-wheeler tractor trailer. And I just pulled over to the side, got out of the truck, and then started walking down 95 and I just started dancing. I mean, people was blowing the horn at me like I was crazy. But I started dancing on the side of 95 saying, “Yes, I can prove my innocence, and I’m going to be a free man.”
Tessa Kramer: It would take several months and a legal battle to get the state to actually test the clippings, but finally they get the DNA results.
Marvin Anderson: And not only did it prove I wasn’t the perpetrator, but it also proved who the real perpetrator was, which was John Otis Lincoln.
[Archival]: Marvin Anderson stood with family and friends outside the Capitol building just before he received his pardon from Governor Mark Warner. Inside the Governor’s office, applause could be heard. Once outside again, he could finally call himself a free man.
Marvin Anderson: My grandmother used to always tell me when I was incarcerated that you’re there for a reason. You know, God has a reason for everything. I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t visualize that.
Tessa Kramer: What Marvin couldn’t possibly imagine was the astounding series of events that would follow his exoneration, all leading back to that forensic scientist who had saved little bits of evidence in his case file. A woman named Mary Jane Burton.
Paul Ferrara: At that point I didn’t realize how widespread Mary Jane Burton’s practice was. But now, as it turns out, we find out that there are thousands of cases.
Paul Ferrara: Thousands.
Tessa Kramer: That’s coming up after the break.
Tessa Kramer: In 2001, the Virginia state crime lab discovered that one of its former analysts, Mary Jane Burton, had saved clippings of evidence in Marvin Anderson’s case file. Burton led the crime lab’s serology department for almost 15 years, starting in the 1970s. She worked thousands of cases. And as the lab soon discovered – and the media began to report – she had a habit of saving bits of biological evidence.
[Archival]: …discovered that now deceased lab technician, Mary Jane Burton, known as the office pack rat, had scrupulously saved thousands of shreds of evidence from pre-DNA days, just in case they might…
[Archival]: The tests were made possible by the careful work of a lab technician named Mary Jane Burton…
[Archival]: …the state of Virginia did the only thing it could do and decided to review every one of Mary Jane Burton’s cases…
[Archival]: Virginia is using DNA for a sweeping post-conviction review of hundreds of criminal cases…
[Archival]: DNA testing from the Burton files cleared two more men…
[Archival]: Five DNA exonerations from the Mary Jane Burton files…
[Archival]: …the eighth man to be exonerated by…
[Archival]: Eleven convicted people were exonerated after Warner as Governor…
Tessa Kramer: Over the course of the next eighteen years, a total of thirteen men including Marvin, would be cleared through DNA testing on evidence found in the lab’s old case files. A state finding a trove of evidence from the pre-DNA era, and spending millions of dollars on DNA testing of that evidence – it was unprecedented. And it’s all thanks to Mary Jane Burton.
Joan Anderson: I think she knew. I think she knew that DNA was going to be admissible.
Tessa Kramer: In the press, Burton was described as “a saving grace,” “an angel,” “a hero,” “a savior.” The New York Times said, “to ‘Burton’ a case is already a fresh term of art in Richmond, one that deserves to spread through the criminal justice system.”
I stumbled across the story of Mary Jane Burton about four years ago, when I was looking into backlogs of untested rape kits for another story. I was instantly drawn in by Mary Jane Burton. And honestly, by how little was actually known about her.
Burton died in 1999 – two years before Dr. Ferrara discovered her clippings. There is pretty much one photo of her floating around on the internet. She’s got short gray hair, she’s wearing a red sweater. It doesn’t really reveal that much about her. And I wanted to know who this woman was. Over and over, I hear the same sort of thing:
Marvin Anderson: I always look at Ms. Burton as a person that saw the future when no one else did.
Marcella Fierro: She always saved swatches, foreseeing that there would be advanced technology in the future that might be able to do more.
John Humphries: She just believed that someday technology was gonna advance to the point that, if there was a miscarriage of justice, it would be able to be rectified.
Marilyn Miller: Thirteen people were exonerated. That’s a big number. That’s a big – as Joe Biden would say – a big f***ing deal, okay?
Mike Herring: Mary Jane Burton, sort of the angel of the Virginia innocence movement.
Phil Evans: She’s sort of viewed as the patron saint of justice and innocence.
Julius Earl Ruffin: She’s a saint!
Tessa Kramer: Up to this point in my reporting, this – everything you have just heard – I thought this was the whole story. The story of a miraculous discovery – 13 exonerations! – and one mysterious, but brilliant scientist. But, as we are only in episode one, things were about to take a turn.
Tessa Kramer: Hi, is this Candace?
Candace Rondeaux: It is Candace.
Tessa Kramer: Candace Rondeaux started as a reporter for the Washington Post right as the lab is beginning to review these old case files.
Candace Rondeaux: You know, it was kind of early days for DNA analysis, and I thought it was kind of an under-covered phenomenon that people weren’t really looking at.
Tessa Kramer: Candace is fascinated by this project – and the fact that it’s taking place in Virginia, specifically.
Candace Rondeaux: You know, Virginia is one of these places where you have an awfully high rate of conviction for people of color and in particular African Americans, which always raises all kinds of questions about disparities in the analysis of evidence. Amongst defense attorneys, there were a lot of questions around the quality of work at the Virginia lab. And whether or not there were even systemic flaws that could be tied to one or two or three or four analysts.
Tessa Kramer: Candace decides to look into this, starting with a trip to the lab.
Candace Rondeaux: I spent the day down there at the laboratory. They showed me what they were attempting to do with the review of Mary Jane Burton’s files. I mean you spend a whole day in a place, people kind of do let down their barriers. And I think there were a couple of concerns as I recall about Mary Jane Burton. This is totally pulling from my memory. There was an internal whistleblower – another lab worker who had complained about her work.
Tessa Kramer: And before I can ask the obvious next question–
Candace Rondeaux: I do not remember that person’s name at all.
Tessa Kramer: I’ve been reporting on Mary Jane Burton for months and this is the first time I’ve heard anything about a whistleblower. There’s not even a mention of it in Candace’s coverage. Maybe she couldn’t verify the story? Maybe it’s nothing, but I wanna look into it. So, my reporting partner Sophie Bearman and I dig through old articles and call everyone we can think of – no luck.
Just as we start to think that this whistleblower may have been a rumor, we find one article referencing a lawsuit. A lawsuit filed against Mary Jane Burton and the lab’s directors back in the 70s. It was filed by a serology trainee. In trying to reach her, we get her sister on the phone first.
Sophie Bearman: and we believe that your sister knew the woman who was saving…
Nancy: Mary Jane?
Sophie Bearman: Yeah, Mary Jane.
Nancy: I’m sure she remembers anything you want to know. I’m not sure how much she’ll be willing to tell you, but I would hope, personally, that she would tell you everything she knows.
Tessa Kramer: What – what do you know about all of this? Like, from your perspective?
Nancy: I know that she lost her career over it.
Tessa Kramer: Really?
Nancy: Because she wasn’t okay with things not being done correctly, they pretty much blackballed her from her career. They did all kinds of awful things to her. So, if I sound angry, even after all these years, it still makes me angry.
Tessa Kramer: As we’re hanging up, Sophie brings up one last thing.
Sophie Bearman: A lot of the coverage has called Mary Jane Burton an angel and so as we’re starting to talk to people –
Nancy: Mary Jane Burton was a lying piece of s***. How’s that for you? She was a nasty evil woman.
Tessa Kramer: There’s so much more to come on Admissible. Season One: Shreds of Evidence. Our second episode is out now.
[Admissible theme plays]
— CREDITS —
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. Producer: Dana Bialek. Producer: Gilda Di Carli. Archival research and production support from Kristin Vermilya and Kim Nederveen Pieterse. Fact checking by Chloe Wynne and Leslie Neigher. Production Legal by Craig Merritt and Innes Smolansky.
Special thanks to: Steve Humble, Paige Williams, Nick Van Der Kolk, Emile Deweaver, Chioke I’anson.
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, with additional music by APM. Our theme is by me, Bryan J. Howard of Del Toro Sound.
Contributing musical performances by Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, Kevin Sweeney, Jay Gonzalez, Nick Rosen and R. Sloan Simpson.
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.