Chapter 10: The Ultimate Form of Gaslighting
Tessa Kramer: I wanna go back to a moment early in my reporting. It’s late 2018. Reporter Sophie Bearman and I are on the road for some of our first interviews. At this point, we think we’re telling the story of a hero who helped prove the innocence of 13 men: Mary Jane Burton.
Over dinner one night, Sophie and I start talking about whether we should put any stock in the allegations raised by Gina Demas, the whistleblower. I mean, it seems no one else has. And then Sophie says something that we really haven’t considered…an idea that feels so out of left field I’m worried we might forget it. I pull out my phone and ask Sophie to say it again, catching her with a mouth full of wasabi peas.
Sophie Bearman: I was saying, maybe Gina is our hero. As the long unsung person who’s actually been looking out for these convicted people from the beginning…
Tessa Kramer (to Sophie): So true.
Sophie Bearman: Yeah.
Tessa Kramer: Right. If she’s not “batshit crazy” is also what you said.
Sophie Bearman: Exactly. If she is, we’re back to…
Tessa Kramer: Which – yeah – but if she’s not batshit crazy…
Sophie Bearman: This is good, yeah.
Tessa Kramer: It’s the story about like, this whistleblower who got shunted to the side–
Sophie Bearman: And all the credit – yeah! Because then it’s like, enough of this!
Tessa Kramer (VO): Okay, “batshit crazy”? Not great. I’m kind of embarrassed that we were so harsh and unfair to Gina. But I’m sharing this because I think it shows just how far we’ve come in this story.
It shows something else, too. We were not the first to be skeptical of Gina. She’s tried to tell a lot of people about the problems with Mary Jane’s work. People at the lab, of course, but also reporters, attorneys, The Innocence Project, people involved with the state’s review of the lab’s case files, and now…us. Will this time be any different?
As we approached the release of this series, I wanted to go see Gina again to see how she feels about her full story finally coming out. How have her efforts to blow the whistle on the crime lab changed the course of her life? And what might the state of Virginia do about her allegations now?
(Admissible theme begins)
Tessa Kramer: This is Admissible. I’m Tessa Kramer.
(Admissible theme ends)
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Hi, Gina!
Gina Demas: Hello! Have you arrived?
Tessa Kramer: I have not arrived, but I just pulled over to grab a bite to eat.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Nearly four years after I started reporting this story, I’m back on the road – on my way to see Gina again.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): So I’m somewhere between Chicago and Madison.
Gina Demas: Oh, okay.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina’s moved since we last met. She’s now in Wisconsin, where her daughter lives. In a few months, she’ll be moving again. Next time, out west.
Gina Demas: I was gonna make shrimp scampi for dinner. Is that okay?
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Ooh! That sounds great.
Gina Demas: I just thought, oh maybe she’s allergic to shellfish! I better call!
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina’s invited me over for dinner with her daughter, Katie. As soon as I walk in the door, they start giving me all the updates…like Gina’s brand new shoulder.
Katie Geren: She had her shoulder replaced.
Gina Demas: Yeah, look, Frankenstein.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Oh my god!
Gina Demas: Woohoo!
Tessa Kramer (VO): As Gina starts making dinner, the conversation turns to Mary Jane.
Katie Geren: Why did she do it? Like, why did she –
Gina Demas: Because she thought she was doing…helping the police.
Katie Geren: So she didn’t think that what she was doing was wrong?
Gina Demas: Cause I tried to get them not to have her –
Katie Geren: She must have been intimidated by you too, cause it’s like you have all this new training and she’s like, oh, I do these things these ways.
Gina Demas: And I changed the way we were doing some of the tests ‘cause it was better, it was newer ways, and…
Katie Geren: She wasn’t willing to learn those.
Gina Demas: Well. It was interfering with her creative writing, I guess. I don’t know.
Tessa Kramer: Gina’s still got that dark sense of humor…As we pick at the last of our shrimp scampi, Gina’s kind of staring off into space.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): I’m sorry. Is it upsetting that I keep showing up bringing all this stuff back up for you?
Gina Demas: No.
Katie Geren: No. I think it’s a good thing, like this has been going on for years. We’re very hopeful that something good comes out of this. Right, like…right?
Gina Demas: We live in hope.
Tessa Kramer (VO): I don’t really think Gina does have a lot of hope. Just listen to how she responds when I bring up her allegations coming to light in this podcast.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): How do you feel about the fact that this story is coming out?
Gina Demas: You always get kinda like really anticipating and you’re thinking, “Now, finally, something’s going to get done” and it never does. So, I want to enjoy part of it where I think something’s going to get done before the dashing of the hope comes and nothing happens. Nobody cares.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina’s tried to tell so many people this story…people who either didn’t call her back, or made her feel like some sort of whack job. Over and over, Gina’s been given no reason to believe that anyone cares about fixing these problems. And that started way back in the 70s.
Gina Demas: There were people who were in charge of that lab who knew that what I was saying was true. Even The Innocence Project people that dug stuff up. If you dig up three cases and they’re all the same examiner, why don’t you go look at that stuff? I told ‘em.
So there’s hundreds of people along the way that chose to look away. So I don’t…I don’t know what to say about those people. It bothers me, but the only thing I can do is take a shot at it every time I get a chance. It doesn’t seem to help, but maybe it did. I don’t know. I mean, how hard would it have been for somebody to just do the right thing?
Tessa Kramer (to self): Testing…testing…
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina’s recently started a new job.
Tessa Kramer (to self): I see the flower stand…
Tessa Kramer (VO): She’s running a flower stand at a local grocery store.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Hello!
Gina Demas: Hello!
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina appears from a room in the back.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): So this is where you work.
Gina Demas: Yes.
Tessa Kramer: Okay!
Gina Demas: On Monday it looks a little sparse because we’ve got flowers that just came in.
Tessa Kramer: This is a good selection of flowers.
Gina Demas: We’re in the process of filling this stuff up…
Tessa Kramer: And do you like it? Do you like the work?
Gina Demas: Yea. What’s not to like?
Tessa Kramer (VO): I can see why she might feel that way after what she went through at the lab. Something more chill, lower stakes. But as I watch Gina rearranging bouquets, I can’t help thinking about how far this is from the career she pictured for herself at 22 with a shiny new biochem degree…
Gina Demas: This is just how you put the stuff on the shelf. I come by and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this was out of place.” What kind of mind is that, you know? It has to be arranged a certain way or else I’m not happy.
Tessa Kramer: …though I feel like I see hints of the scientist Gina would have been. Know what I mean? The attention to detail? The pride she takes in her work? I don’t know…
Gina has to get back to work, so we say our goodbyes.
(car door closes)
Tessa Kramer (to self): Okay, turn this thing off…
Tessa Kramer (VO): Driving back to the airport, I start thinking about the toll this fight has taken on Gina. Sure, her career took a left turn – but it’s more than that. Gina’s got such a cynical sense of humor, it can be hard to tell just how much this eats at her. But I think it really does.
Gina Demas: You know, when you…you think, “Okay, what’s your lot in life?” And I thought my lot was going to be one thing and it ended up being this. That was my lot. It was given to me at the age of 22. I carry it with me. And when it comes up, I have to do it again. And I keep on doing it until it gets finished.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): Which it hasn’t been, yet.
Gina Demas: Mm-mm.
Tessa Kramer: How many years has it been? When did this start – 1970 – I mean, almost…
Gina Demas: Almost 50 years. Maybe on my anniversary something will happen.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Actually, one of the reasons I’ve come to see Gina is because I have some news to share…
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): We did call and talk to the current director of the DFS.
Gina Demas: Oh yeah?
Tessa Kramer (VO): About a week earlier, I’d spoken to Linda Jackson. She’s been the director of the lab since 2013. Many people I interviewed spoke really highly of her work, so I reached out and talked with Jackson and a colleague of hers, asking about Gina’s claims and Mary Jane Burton. They said they didn’t know anything about this. A few days later, we got an email from the lab…I read it to Gina.
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): “Ms. Kramer indicated that VPM is in possession of documents that would suggest that Mary Jane Burton, a former employee of DFS, falsified examination results in certain cases. The Department is an accredited forensic laboratory with an ethical and professional obligation to investigate these types of allegations.”
Gina Demas: Boy, can I have a plaque that says that?
Tessa Kramer: You can print this out if you want.
Gina Demas: Warren is spinning right now. Dr. Tiedemann.
Tessa Kramer (VO): Gina seems delighted by the idea of the former heads of the lab spinning in their graves – Warren Johnson and Albert Tiedemann – the people who told Gina not to “buck the system” in response to these exact same allegations…
After the break, we sit down with someone who’s worked with a lot of whistleblowers and seen time and again how institutions respond to their claims.
Dana Gold: Like, this is what happens. This is the wrong thing for an employer to do and this is what they do all the time. And it’s just the classic moves.
Dana Gold: I’m Dana Gold and I am senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project, which is a national whistleblower protection advocacy organization.
Tessa Kramer (to Dana): How long have you been doing this work? How did you get into this work?
Dana Gold: So…how much tape do you have?
Tessa Kramer (VO): Dana Gold has worked with a lot of people like Gina.
Dana Gold: There’s a lot of misperceptions about, you know, whistleblowers and their motives. But they’re viewed as disloyal, right? Because they’re standing up against the power structure. They’re actually often the most loyal employees. And sometimes I say that they didn’t get the memo.
Tessa Kramer: We’ve called Gina “the whistleblower” in this story, but Dana says whistleblowers don’t always see themselves that way.
Dana Gold: They often are like, “One, it’s my job.” They see a problem and it’s their job – is there an accountant or a quality control person or someone who basically is like, “These are the rules that you follow and the laws that govern your job.” And they don’t see themselves as whistleblowers. And then they are surprised when they think they’re gonna raise a concern and something…like it’ll be fixed.
And they trust their employer to say, “Oh yeah, thanks. Thanks for raising that.” So then they all of a sudden are labeled with this term “whistleblower” because the response from the employer is not, “Thank you, we’ll investigate and fix the problem.” It’s that, “You’re the problem. You’re the problem.” So it’s attacking the messenger rather than dealing with the message and then they become…toxic.
Tessa Kramer (to Dana): Yeah. You kind of don’t become a whistleblower until the institution reacts.
Dana Gold: It’s about the employer response. If their employer responds appropriately, with a credible investigation – they took it seriously – the employee will accept those responses. Like it’s a win for the organization, right? But that is not what happens typically.
Tessa Kramer (VO): As we’ve seen, instead of actually addressing the problem institutions often go on the defensive. They try to make the whistleblower the problem, calling into question their motives…
Dana Gold: …when the motives actually don’t matter, legally, they don’t matter. It’s like, is the person – do they have a reasonable belief that there was wrongdoing? And they don’t even have to prove it, actually. They have to have a reasonable belief, under most legal standards.
Tessa Kramer (to Dana): Cause then the agency can look into it and determine if there really is a problem.
Dana Gold: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But you still don’t get to retaliate against them.
Tessa Kramer: Yea. Well, that’s not what happened.
Dana Gold: Right.
Tessa Kramer: Yeah, so…
Tessa Kramer (VO): I tell Dana some key parts of Gina’s story, and about how the lab responded. How they threw the book at Gina for minor infractions.
Dana Gold: You start making a case to terminate them. Making it about them. It’s classic.
Tessa Kramer: How they told Gina she wasn’t being a team player.
Dana Gold: Classic, classic, classic.
Tessa Kramer: How they transferred Gina out of the serology lab.
Dana Gold: Isolated her from the evidence of the problem. Classic.
Tessa Kramer: In case you missed that, this is classic whistleblower suppression.
Dana Gold: It’s just not subtle, even. I mean, that’s like why I’m laughing because it’s like every move is just like, this is what happens. This is the wrong thing for an employer to do and this is what they do all the time. And it’s just the classic moves.
I represent so many whistleblowers, but most people come to us after they start experiencing retaliation, right? And their lives are…wrecked. Like, turned upside down. You know, we identify so much of our self…so much of our self identity is based on our work, right? And it’s also just like our livelihood. To have that destroyed and attacked because you did the right thing –because you’re doing your job and you’re good at it – it’s like…it’s like, earth shattering.
Tessa Kramer: I have a feeling that Dana might be interested to talk to Gina. So I set up a call between the two of them.
Dana Gold: Hi Gina, this is Dana. I’m really excited to talk to you.
Gina Demas: Well, thank you.
Tessa Kramer: Gina tells Dana a bit about her journey.
Gina Demas: I started out trying to have a career in forensic science. I got a degree – a BS in biochemistry, which was as close as you could get at the time. That was what I was gonna do. And when all this stuff happened, of course I got set off on a different path. All the stuff that happened to me is always in the back of my mind.
I felt so guilty because what we were doing was mainly rapes and homicides. So, if anybody was in jail wrongly, they could be executed. That was always on my mind that somebody might be killed that shouldn’t be. And it never goes away. So, it’s hard to carry it around, but eventually I guess you get used to it.
Dana Gold: Your experience is…it is not unusual.
Gina Demas: I think it’s very common.
Dana Gold: It’s very common. Exactly. Even though it feels completely isolating and disorienting and life altering.
Gina Demas: Definitely.
Dana Gold: I would say a lot of the people I work with –I’d be curious about this for you, Gina – is that, most people, even having gone through really kind of a horrible retaliation, life altering experience, most of them would say, “I did the right thing. I did the right thing, and I would do it again.” And I’d be curious if you feel that way or not, because you actually blew the whistle at a very different time.
Gina Demas: Well, that was back when the FBI was famous for doing bad stuff like this, you know?
Tessa Kramer: Back when Gina was working in the lab, it was such a different time. Public trust in institutions used to be a lot higher than it is today. And without things like social media, I imagine it was harder for claims to gain traction and public support…easier for a state crime lab to sweep problems under the rug, and to silence a trainee in her early twenties.
Gina Demas: You know, you said something about, you know, would you do it again? Would you not do it again? I don’t know for sure, but most people who do this don’t feel like they really have a choice. You know, somebody said to me, “Well, why don’t you just go get a job somewhere else?” and I said, “Well, how would I know it wouldn’t be the same thing over?” I couldn’t do that again.
Dana Gold: Yeah. You know, when you expose misconduct of those who abuse their power, the move typically is to go after the messenger to deflect the message. Yes, it’s like, “Let me attack your credibility.” You know, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s like the ultimate form of gaslighting.
Gina Demas: But it’s, in my case, there were like black and white pieces of paper, before and after. You know, here it’s this blood type over here and then we erase it and we write another one.
Dana Gold: Exactly. It’s based on facts.
Gina Demas: And it’s not about me.
Dana Gold: It’s not about you and it’s objective. It’s like –
Gina Demas: It’s not about anything with my work. All it is is, “here’s this and here’s this..”
Tessa Kramer (to Gina): What’s interesting too, you know, Dr. Ferrara who went on to become the director of the lab, you know, he came out in that article in 2004 and he said, “We never found any proof of her allegations…”
Gina Demas: And lied. And I told you if they do it again, I am gonna go after ’em. Cause I’m not gonna have it again. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of people saying I’m a liar.
Dana Gold: Yeah. It’s not okay.
Gina Demas: No.
Dana Gold: No.
Gina Demas: I’ve got receipts, right?
Dana Gold: Yeah, exactly. You got the goods. That’s right.
Gina Demas: I’ve got receipts.
Dana Gold: You got the goods.
Gina Demas: I would like for it to come out that they were told in 1970 that they had a problem. And they didn’t do anything about it, they covered it up and it continued. That’s what I would like to come out. And Ms. “I’m gonna do a review. We need to do an investigation.” I hope they do. Now what?
Tessa Kramer (VO): That’s a good question. If the DFS does investigate, what can we expect to come of it? The answer to that is not a complete mystery. The DFS has been in the hot seat before. Next time, we’re gonna take a look at the lab’s record of reviewing misconduct within its own four walls, starting with one of the most notorious cases in the lab’s history.
Tessa Kramer (to Peter): Can you characterize what went wrong in his case? Especially as far as how the DFS messed up?
Peter Neufeld: Oh gosh. It’s a long list. I mean, Earl Washington came within nine days of being executed. Can’t get worse than that.
(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.
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.