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A crime lab scientist's work exonerated 13 people. But some say she altered evidence

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly identify the chair of the Forensic Science Board's Scientific Advisory Committee as Linda Jackson. Kathleen Corrado holds that position.]

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than two decades ago, Virginia's crime lab discovered clippings of evidence taped to lab notes in hundreds of cases, evidence that led to the exoneration of 13 people who had been wrongfully convicted. The forensic scientist who kept the evidence was hailed as a hero, but a whistleblower has raised major questions about her work. Ben Paviour with member station VPM reports.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: In 1982, Marvin Anderson was convicted in a rape and abduction case. There was no DNA testing at the time. He spent 15 years in prison. Then, in 2001, the state crime lab revealed that the forensic scientist working his case had taped down swabs of evidence, including semen found on the victim. DNA tests confirmed Anderson's innocence. He was driving when he found out.

MARVIN ANDERSON: I just pulled over to the side, got out the truck. And I started walking down 95, and I just started dancing. I mean, people were blowing their horn at me like I was crazy.

PAVIOUR: The scientist, Mary Jane Burton, had died two years earlier after a long career as a serologist. For Anderson, it almost felt like Burton had known more accurate forensic techniques were coming.

ANDERSON: I always look at Miss Burton as a person that saw the future.

PAVIOUR: It turned out that it wasn't just Anderson's case where Burton kept evidence in her lab notes. Here's Paul Ferrara, the lab's director at the time, in a 2006 interview with NPR's Anthony Brooks.

PAUL FERRARA: Now, as it turns out, we find out that there are thousands of cases.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Thousands.

FERRARA: Thousands.

PAVIOUR: The state spent the next 13 years going through those files, leading to a slew of exonerations. Burton was lionized in the press as a hero of Virginia wrongful conviction cases. But there was at least one person with a very different opinion of Burton's work - Gina Demas, who trained under Burton in the 1970s.

GINA DEMAS: All those people that sit in jail, and now they're saying, thank God for Mary Jane Burton. [Expletive].

PAVIOUR: Demas said she discovered that Burton was regularly skipping critical controls, pushing the limits of her testing and even falsifying lab results.

DEMAS: This is a story that will scare the bejesus out of you.

PAVIOUR: She told her story to reporters Tessa Kramer and Sophie Bearman in the podcast Admissible: Shreds Of Evidence. At first, they had no idea whether to take her seriously, but as they began combing through Demas' old files...

TESSA KRAMER, BYLINE: So what does all this mean?

DEMAS: OK.

KRAMER: I feel like it's gibberish.

DEMAS: I'm still going. I know.

PAVIOUR: ...They found paperwork that supports her claims that Burton altered test results.

DEMAS: That's - they also changed that.

KRAMER: Oh, yeah - BA one.

DEMAS: That's totally changed.

PAVIOUR: The result - with Burton's change, the police's suspect wouldn't be ruled out. Demas tried to get the attention of the lab's leadership. She even filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in the 1970s.

DEMAS: They all covered all that up, knowing it was wrong. If you want to do that, there's mafias for that.

PAVIOUR: For the podcast, Kramer and a team of reporters looked into Demas' allegations and the culture of the Virginia lab. They spoke with several of Mary Jane Burton's former coworkers, including Deanne Dabbs. She said she was aware of problems with Burton's work but nothing on the scale of changed test results.

DEANNE DABBS: I think it calls into question the cases that she worked - I mean, all the cases. And she worked a lot of cases.

PAVIOUR: Now a committee overseeing the state crime lab's work is deciding whether to revisit old cases for more than just DNA evidence. The lab's current director, Linda Jackson, recently addressed the accusations in a committee meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHLEEN CORRADO: The reason we're all here is because it needs to be reviewed and then go from there.

PAVIOUR: The committee could decide to let the matter rest. There have been questions about cost and feasibility. Or they could act on the new revelations and open a new chapter in the story of Mary Jane Burton and the people affected by her work. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ben Paviour