Chapter 4: The Show and Tell Girl
Who was this storied serologist, Mary Jane Burton? While her work is preserved in case files, bench notes, and court transcripts, little is known about her interior life. As we gather more detail about her life, uncovering mysteries and tragedies that complicate the narrative surrounding her work, a clearer picture emerges.
Tessa Kramer: Previously on Admissible:
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Marvin Anderson: I always look at Ms. Burton as a person that saw the future when no one else did.
Phil Evans: She’s sort of viewed as the patron saint of justice and innocence.
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.
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…”
Marilyn Miller: Why would somebody who’s been doing this for a long time make these kind of errors? There had to be a cause. Overworked, underpaid, underloved?
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Patricia Cornwell: Where are you today?
Tessa Kramer (to Patricia): Uh, well, I’m specifically in my closet in my apartment.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Patricia Cornwell is a #1 best-selling crime novelist. She’s the author of the Kay Scarpetta series about a fictional medical examiner. I’ve called Cornwell to ask about a different character…
Patricia Cornwell: If I can’t find something in one of my own books we should probably end this interview before it starts!
Tessa Kramer: The character I’m interested in is a forensic analyst named Betty.
Patricia Cornwell: “Close to retirement Betty had steel gray hair, strong features, and hazel eyes that could be unreadable or shyly sensitive depending on whether you took the trouble to get to know her. I liked her the first time I met her. The Chief Serologist was meticulous, her acumen as sharp as a scalpel…”
Tessa Kramer: This meticulous serologist is fictional – but she sounds an awful lot like someone we know…
Patricia Cornwell: Mary Jane was at that time in a serology lab upstairs.
Tessa Kramer: Yup, Mary Jane Burton. Before writing crime novels, Cornwell worked in the Medical Examiner’s Office at the Richmond lab – right downstairs from Mary Jane.
Patricia Cornwell: I know very little about her personally. What I do know is that she had an obvious aura of seniority. Gray hair – short gray hair – always in a lab coat. I don’t remember her joking very much. I remember she was very intense. I think she’s one of these people that you would call relentless. She started out back in a day when there really weren’t such a thing as forensic labs. So she was a real trailblazer and was a force to be reckoned with.
Tessa Kramer: For a long time, I also knew very little about Mary Jane. I was so excited to learn about this “force to be reckoned with.” Then I met Gina Demas, who raised serious allegations about Mary Jane’s work, and that image that I had of her crumbled.
(Admissible theme begins)
Tessa Kramer: Mary Jane Burton is like a silhouette – a blank outline of a person – at the center of this story. Understanding who she really was feels super important if we’re going to make sense of Gina’s allegations. So, in this episode, we’re gonna try to fill in that outline: who was Mary Jane Burton?
I’m Tessa Kramer, and this is Admissible.
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Tessa Kramer: When I first started reporting on Mary Jane Burton, one thing kept coming up:
Holle Humphries: She was very, very tall.
Tessa Kramer: Mary Jane was tall.
Deanne Dabbs: She was tall.
Mary Ann Tebbe: She was probably about 5’ 11”.
Jan Betscher: She was probably six-foot.
Eunice Snyder: Yeah, she belonged to the Tall Club.
Keith Betscher: The Cincinnati Tall Club.
Holle Humphries: A social group for tall people.
Tessa Kramer: Sophie got very into finding out about Mary Jane and the whole Tall Club thing – maybe because she’s 5′ 9″ herself.
Sophie Bearman: And how tall are you, Mary Ann?
Mary Ann Tebbe: Well, I was 5’ 10” but I’ve shrunk. I think I’m about 5’ 7” or 5’ 8” right now.
Tessa Kramer: Mary Ann Tebbe met Mary Jane through the Cincinnati Tall Club in the 1950s. They were just out of college – Mary Jane had a degree in chemistry, and she was working in cancer research. This was years before she got into forensics.
Mary Ann Tebbe: She would measure everybody. We had this stick we called “Hugo” – H-U-G-O – and if you weren’t 5’ 10” – the girls – you couldn’t get in. What was different about the California clubs…
Tessa Kramer: We could do a whole podcast just about the Tall Club. But aside from tall, what was Mary Jane actually like?
Mary Ann Tebbe: I didn’t know of anybody that didn’t like her. She was just a really all-around good person.
Keith Betscher: First time I ever heard of Mary Jane was when my mother was talking about her brother, John W. Burton, married a young lady from Cincinnati named Mary Jane, that he had met in the Cincinnati Tall Club.
Tessa Kramer: Keith Betscher is Mary Jane’s nephew, and the unofficial record keeper of the family. He thinks he has some old photos of Mary Jane so Sophie and I follow him and his wife, Jan, down to the basement – which is impeccably organized, I might add.
Keith Betscher: This is a map of the storage, so I know if I look at D-2 I’m going to find Box 46. We have her wedding album, we think.
Jan Betscher: I don’t think – I know it. Hers was a white box…
Keith Betscher: Yeah. I remember that. That’s it, that’s it! First box!
Tessa Kramer: I love to see good organization pay off. We take the album upstairs and start flipping through.
Jan Betscher: All right. So this is Mary Jane, and this is Johnny. Oh, that’s a cute one. Mary Jane actually looks happy.
Tessa Kramer: Is that surprising?
Jan Betscher: Well, she… she wasn’t particularly a person who showed a lot of emotion.
Tessa Kramer: Mary Jane and Johnny were only married for three years when Johnny suddenly died of pneumonia. This was one of several early hardships in Mary Jane’s life. Her father died when she was young. She got polio and walked with a limp for the rest of her life. At one point she’d been pregnant with twins, but she had a miscarriage. She never remarried or had children.
Mary Jane and Johnny had opened a bakery together. A few years after his death, she sells it and gets a job at the Cincinnati Coroner’s Office. This is her first step into the world of forensic science – a world that would consume so much of the rest of her life.
John Humphries III: I visited her one time and we were sitting around the kitchen table and we were making rape kits.
Tessa Kramer: Sitting around the table making rape kits with Mary Jane is her nephew, John.
John Humphries III: And they had cotton swabs and little test tubes with lids on them and gauze and paperwork and things that she would distribute to the police departments and the hospitals, too, that if someone came in and said that they were raped it was like a checklist. Get a sample of this, do something under the fingernails…
Tessa Kramer: This is John’s recollection and we really couldn’t confirm this – but the point being: forensic science is that new. This is the late 1960s and there are not a lot of established protocols…people like Mary Jane are kinda making things up as they go. Like, how to even collect evidence from a crime scene. Her nephew sees this as a sign of her dedication to the work.
John Humphries III: She just threw everything into it. The crime lab was her life.
Tessa Kramer: In 1971, Mary Jane lands a job at a police crime lab in Charlotte, North Carolina. So she packs up her car and heads south.
Peter Gilchrist: I had been assigned a rape case, and as I was going through the evidence, I ended up meeting with a woman rather recently come to the Charlotte lab.
Tessa Kramer: I meet Peter Gilchrist at his house on the coast of Maine. He’s retired after a long career as the District Attorney in Charlotte, where he overlapped with Mary Jane briefly. Enough to make an impression, though.
Peter Gilchrist: I remember being in the lab and her showing me how she had taken a big roll of craft paper – the stuff that you wrap packages in – and she’d spread it out on the table and then she had put pants on there. And I mean, she had gone through there with a brush or a magnifying glass and, you know, was looking at these things…
Tessa Kramer: This is a good time to mention that Mary Jane is doing a lot more than blood type testing. Her official title in Charlotte is a “criminalist,” meaning she worked with all kinds of crime scene evidence: blood, hair, glass fragments – you name it.
Mary Jane had a chemistry degree, but like many forensic scientists in that day, she was pretty much self-taught. Which made her results – and what she could do with the evidence – all the more impressive.
Peter told me about a particular case where Mary Jane was able to match glass from a shattered Christmas ornament found at a crime scene to glass fragments found in a suspect’s sneakers.
Peter Gilchrist: You sort of had that overwhelming physical evidence that was quite unusual.
Tessa Kramer (to Peter): It sounds like Mary Jane’s work was what sort of clinched that case.
Peter Gilchrist: Oh, there was – there was no question. I know that other folks in the crime lab were impressed too.
Tessa Kramer (VO): This does seem impressive. Gina told me that Mary Jane was like a miracle-worker – often the only one who could make the case for the police. But knowing what we know from Gina, it’s also concerning to hear these stories.
For one thing, this science was so speculative at the time. People described the early days of forensics as a wild west. Analysts with very little formal education in forensics were writing the rules and figuring things out as they went…helping put people behind bars, all along the way.
Tessa Kramer (to Peter): On the phone when we spoke, you described her – I think the term you used was like she was like “a bird dog” and I wanted to ask what you meant.
Peter Gilchrist: Would get very interested in something and just really keep digging. You know, when she would find something, she really would keep on working along. I remember thinking it was a loss when we lost her.
Tessa Kramer (VO): “Lost her” to the Bureau of Forensic Science in Richmond, Virginia, where she’d spend the next 15 years as the state’s Chief Serologist. It’s in Richmond that Mary Jane’s career as a crime-busting scientist really takes off.
Marcella Fierro: The police would come, they would have evidence, and they would say, “Mary Jane, what can you do?” “Mary Jane, we got this, that, and the other. What can you do?”
Tessa Kramer: Dr. Marcella Fierro was the Medical Examiner in Richmond. And side note: Dr. Fierro was the inspiration for Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the main character in Patricia Cornwell’s books. But anyway, back to Mary Jane.
Marcella Fierro: She would be there on the weekend doing cases and I remember one day I said to her, “Mary Jane, you have got to quit working every weekend because if you continue to do this, they will never hire you any help!” And they did hire her another forensic serologist, Joan – I can’t remember Joan’s last name…
Tessa Kramer: That would be Joan Faunce, the other certified serologist in Richmond.
Marcella Fierro: She and Joan were producing such terrific work that they were totally overloaded. And I knew from the beginning that she always saved swatches because the materials that we sent her would come back with that information on the report, that she had retained this swatch of this, that, and the other thing.
Tessa Kramer: The clippings of evidence. Everyone seemed to know that Mary Jane saved them. She even instructed the other serologists to do the same. The big question when all of this came back to light in the 2000s was why?
Marcella Fierro: She developed an archive, foreseeing that there would be advanced technology in the future that might be able to do more.
Tessa Kramer: This is a popular hypothesis. A lot of people think that Mary Jane saved the clippings because of some sort of foresight – knowing that they’d be used for good someday. People including her family and many of the exonerees.
But, even before learning about Gina and the issues with Mary Jane’s work, something about this foresight theory always struck me as a bit far-fetched. And then, Shirley Patterson, the lab’s secretary, had a different theory.
Shirley Patterson: They used to call her “The Show and Tell Girl” because that’s why she taped all those things to her worksheets.
Tessa Kramer: That’s coming up after the break.
Shirley Patterson: They used to call her “The Show and Tell Girl” because that’s why she taped all those things to her worksheets. She would take them into court and say, “see, this is the q-tip” or “see, this is the blood swatch” and see, that makes an impression on a jury.
Tessa Kramer: That’s Shirley Patterson, the office secretary. And her theory of why Mary Jane saved clippings? We actually found some evidence to back it up, in some old trial transcripts.
Prosecutor (voice actor): State your name, please.
Mary Jane Burton (voice actor): Mary Jane Burton.
Prosecutor: And your occupation?
Mary Jane Burton: I’m a forensic scientist.
Tessa Kramer: This is not Mary Jane Burton. It’s a voice actor.
Mary Jane Burton: I routinely examine items submitted for blood, body secretions, hairs and natural fibers.
Tessa Kramer: We searched high and low for a recording of Mary Jane…never found one. But I’ve read lots of transcripts of her trial testimony…
Mary Jane Burton: All right.
Tessa Kramer: …and they really give a sense of her voice – and a sense of this show and tell routine.
Mary Jane Burton: First of all, let me explain. Whenever you have close physical contact, you’re going to have an exchange in materials…
Tessa Kramer: In trial after trial, Mary Jane would do her own version of forensics 101 for the jury.
Mary Jane Burton: In the case of rape or sodomy, there are secretions that potentially could be transferred…
Tessa Kramer: She’d walk them through the fundamentals…
Mary Jane Burton: In the case of rape, if there is an exchange of secretions, we take advantage of this and we try to determine the secretion type.
Tessa Kramer: Then it’s show and tell time.
Mary Jane Burton: These are blue jeans, and I identified spermatozoa heads in extracts of the stain from the crotch of the blue jeans. You can see the hole here. The crotch was stained, and I cut out a little portion and extracted it with water and put it on a slide…
Tessa Kramer: Co-workers say Mary Jane kept this up right until the end of her career… which came around the time of a case we talked about earlier in this series. Here’s Patricia Cornwell.
Patricia Cornwell: She was around when the Timothy Spencer case happened.
Tessa Kramer: The Timothy Spencer case, otherwise known as the Southside Strangler case. This was a big moment in Mary Jane’s career – one of her very last cases. And I see this as, like, a changing-of-the-guard moment in the history of forensic science. The moment when DNA replaced serology as the best method for analyzing blood and bodily fluids.
Patricia Cornwell: Serology started shifting over to DNA right about the time Mary Jane left.
Shirley Patterson: And I just think that was her whole life, was that job.
Tessa Kramer: That’s Shirley again.
Shirley Patterson: I believe Mary Jane would have worked up to the day she died, if you want to know the truth. That’s how much she loved her work.
Tessa Kramer: But Mary Jane didn’t work up until the day she died. Instead, she suddenly retired.
Shirley Patterson: It was kind of fishy about why she left. I mean, we were just told that she was leaving and that – I mean, it really wasn’t discussed or anything.
Tessa Kramer: Shirley’s not the only one who thinks there was something fishy about Mary Jane’s retirement. Mary Jane’s nephew Keith, and his wife Jan, tell us that around 1988, Mary Jane was just starting to talk about retirement.
Keith Betscher: She had a plan to come back to Cincinnati and she came to us one day and said, “Will you move me when the time comes?” And we said, “Yeah.”
Jan Betscher: We said, “Well, when is this going to be?” And she said, “Oh, probably three or four years.” Like, “Oh, sure, no problem.” Six months later she said, “Hey, I’m coming back to Cincinnati, are you going to be available such-and-such a weekend?” And it’s like, “Sure!”
Sophie Bearman: Why did she make it quicker than what she had thought? Was she just ready to retire?
Keith Betscher: Well no… Something happened. All I know is she retired way sooner than we thought. It was very sudden, and there was never — I have no clear memory of why.
Jan Betscher: No, she never talked about it.
Tessa Kramer: Now this raises questions for me. We know this was the moment when DNA replaced serology as the gold standard for analyzing bodily fluids. Maybe the DNA era simply made Mary Jane Burton, Chief Serologist, obsolete.
Or…maybe her sudden departure had to do with the quality of her work. In the late ‘80s, Dr. Paul Ferrara became Director of the lab. And he was certainly aware of her issues. Mary Jane’s nephew, John, told us that Mary Jane mentioned some conflict with Ferrara – but like so many things in her life, she did not reveal any more.
Keith and Jan also got the sense that Mary Jane didn’t wanna get into it. So they did as she asked and helped her move to a quiet retirement home outside Cincinnati. They saw her every once in a while, had her over for holidays, and then one year…
Keith Betscher: We had her for Christmas dinner. She said, “I’m going to Florida for the first two weeks in January, to get away from Cincinnati.”
Tessa Kramer: A week later, he gets a call from his wife Jan.
Keith Betscher: She calls me at work and says, “Mary Jane’s dead.” And I said, “No Mary Jane’s in Florida.” Jan says, “That’s right. Mary Jane’s dead in Florida.”
Tessa Kramer: In January of 1999, Mary Jane died at a timeshare in Florida. There was no autopsy, but her family thinks it was an aneurysm. She was 70. Mary Jane was a devout Catholic all her life and she left hundreds of thousands of dollars to Catholic charities in her will.
And that could have been the end of her story. Until, a few years later, news breaks about the miraculous discovery of some clippings that Mary Jane had taped to her case files. Reporters start trying to find out: who was this mysterious scientist?
Candace Rondeaux: What I specifically remember is a drinking problem.
Tessa Kramer: That’s former Washington Post reporter Candace Rondeaux. And this lines up with something that Keith and Jan told us about clearing out Mary Jane’s apartment in Cincinnati after she died.
Keith Betscher: We found more scotch—
Jan Betscher: Oh, we found more scotch than—
Tessa Kramer: Really?
Jan Betscher: Oh my god.
Keith Betscher: And it was in places you wouldn’t expect to find scotch.
Tessa Kramer: Sophie interviewed Mary Jane’s longtime friend, Eunice Snyder, who also said this was something Mary Jane grappled with.
Eunice Snyder: I think this was after she retired and she didn’t have any responsibility and it developed. And um…I’m sorry, this isn’t good to talk about. I hadn’t meant to bring this up.
Sophie Bearman: I mean, I think no one is perfect, we all know that, and it’s just something she dealt with.
Eunice Snyder: Dealt with because she was lonesome. After she retired, she didn’t have anything, really, to do. I mean, she’d been so busy all her life and then all of a sudden – nothing. That’s when she took up her bridge seriously, and I guess her drinking seriously.
Tessa Kramer: In the course of our reporting, we learned something else: in July of 1979, someone broke into Mary Jane’s apartment in the middle of the night and raped her. We found a police report that confirms this, and a co-worker of Mary Jane’s also brought this up.
Deanne Dabbs: She was sexually assaulted at one time, while I was working in that lab. They whisked that evidence off to the FBI cause they didn’t – you know, we were there working under her and they didn’t want us working on the evidence.
Sophie Bearman: Did she ever talk about it?
Deanne Dabbs: No. Never. We knew because the evidence had been submitted. Nobody ever talked about it. No. And she certainly never talked about it.
Tessa Kramer: I want to be really clear: This happened to Mary Jane after Gina blew the whistle on her work.
I find a lot of Mary Jane’s life story to be sort of tragic. I imagine her walking into an empty home every night, after a long day spent analyzing evidence from horrific, violent cases. How did she process the toll of her work?
Without being able to talk to Mary Jane, we’ll really never know exactly how her life outside the lab may have impacted her work. One thing we do know? She loved being a forensic scientist. But maybe just a little too much…
Gina Demas: She thought she was helping. Her job was to help them catch the guy.
Tessa Kramer: This is Gina.
Gina Demas: You should be totally objective. It’s really hard because you develop a relationship with the policemen, you want to help them, and that’s kind of what happened to Mary Jane. She was the hero. And you’re not a hero, you’re a scientist. That’s all you’re supposed to be. I don’t think she didn’t care. I think she thought she was doing a good job. I do.
Tessa Kramer: This doesn’t excuse the very serious problems with Mary Jane’s work – it helps explain them. But what about everyone else? What about the people in charge of the lab?
(Admissible theme plays)
Gina Demas: Ooh, this’ll be handy for y’all. Look here. “Chronology of the Demas whistleblowing efforts.”
Tessa Kramer: Next time: what did the lab do when Gina blew the whistle?
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.