Richmond Times Dispatch

Feb 18, 2003

Scientist's legacy: freedom for two


When forensic scientist Mary Jane Burton died in 1999, she left a legacy far more meaningful than the pages of a best-selling novel based on one of her cases.

And a controversy that is only now surfacing.

For years, in what was either a stroke of prescience or a mistake, she put tested biological material in case files instead of returning it with other evidence to the appropriate authorities.

In so doing, she has enabled recent DNA testing in cases where all the other evidence has long since been destroyed, thereby clearing two innocent men of rapes.

"This woman has been a complete mystery," said Gordon Zedd, lawyer for a client just released from prison thanks to Burton. "I know she died, but I don't know anything else about her.

"It's almost like she had a premonition that the science was going to get better," he said.

But Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project said Dr. Paul B. Ferrara, director of the state's Division of Forensic Science, told him Burton was "let go because she was not doing good work" and her filing of the testing material in case files was but one example.

A colleague who worked closely with Burton for years declined to comment for this report. Ferrara would only say she left her job of her own accord.

Said Marvin Anderson, cleared of a 1982 rape because of Burton: "My opinion now is that they need to look at a lot of her caseload, because there could be a lot more innocent people who are incarcerated."

Ferrara, however, said there are no plans to run blanket tests of the material Burton may have kept in her files. Instead, he will only perform those tests ordered by courts or the governor.

For one thing, testing it all would be impractical and not necessarily productive. Ferrara said that there have only been 15 requests by inmates for DNA testing since a law granting that right went into effect in 2001.

Neufeld said the Innocence Project is representing at least one other man whose case might be helped by evidence Burton retained.

Ferrara remembers Burton as a quiet and private employee. He said it has been the practice to return all evidence to the agency that submitted it once it has been tested.

"However, this particular examiner [Burton] had a habit of taking the pieces of evidence - in these cases I think they were little swatches of evidence - that she used for blood typing and tape them to her test sheets."

Ferrara had no idea she had been doing it. He said she may have done it in hundreds of cases.

Ferrara found out about it in 2001 when Anderson - a parolee at the time - requested DNA testing to clear his name.

With the assistance of Hanover County Commonwealth's Attorney Kirby Porter, lawyers for the Innocence Project determined the court clerk's office and the police department no longer held any evidence in the case.

The state forensics laboratory was also asked to look. Ferrara said he went to search the case file in his office so he could say when the evidence had been sent back to authorities.

But what he found shocked him. Taped to a sheet of paper in the file was the tip of a swab that Burton had used in her blood-typing tests.

"Holy mackerel," said Ferrara.

He wondered if it was suitable for DNA testing. State officials, however, initially refused to grant permission for the test. But then a new law took effect in 2001 giving Anderson the right to the test.

Not only was the material suitable for testing, in addition to clearing Anderson, it implicated another man who has since been convicted of the rape.

"I think she gets, as we used to say as kids, the 'Kilroy Was Here,' award," Neufeld said. "Her so-called mistakes had a rather unusual result. I mean, talk about serendipity."

Julius E. Ruffin, too, was exonerated thanks to Burton.

Zedd went to court to win DNA testing for Ruffin, and the request was approved late last year. The Norfolk commonwealth's attorney's office searched for suitable material for DNA testing. The three places to search are the local court, the police department or the forensics laboratory.

All the other evidence had long since been destroyed but some was found in Burton's case file.

The victim in the case positively identified Ruffin as her attacker. Blood typing, presumably done by Burton, had placed Ruffin and the rapist within 8 percent of the population.

His first two trials were mistrials, but the third time, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served more than 20 years before he was freed last week.

. . .

Said Burton's nephew, Keith Betscher, of West Chester, Ohio: "It's great to know she did something that corrected a terrible wrong."

Family and friends said Burton was born Mary Jane Graf on the west side of Cincinnati. She was an only child. She obtained her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati in 1950. On Oct. 1, 1960, she married John W. Burton, a baker in Lebanon, Ohio.

John Burton died at 32 of pneumonia not long after they wed. She never remarried, said Betscher. She and her mother-in-law, Maud Burton, made a go of the bakery for a couple of years before she sold it.

Betscher said Burton then went to work for the coroner's office in Cincinnati, and in the 1970s she moved to Charlotte, N.C., and worked for authorities there. She was then hired by Virginia and moved to Richmond.

Betscher said his aunt cared deeply for her family and was devoted to her mother, who lived with her until she died. On the other hand, he said, his aunt was reserved and "wasn't a touchy-feely kind of person."

Betscher's wife, Jan, described Burton as a "a very logical, pragmatic-type person."

Betscher said Burton developed a "rape kit" for police to recover evidence in rape cases. Her mother-in-law used to help assemble the kits that were given to police departments.

Burton often talked about her job and attending trials. "She loved it. Absolutely loved it," Betscher said. She got a great deal of satisfaction helping solve cases and bringing about justice. "She had a very strong sense of right and wrong."

In a 1974 Times-Dispatch article about women who worked at the state laboratory, Burton was quoted as saying: "What we are doing is very necessary and a great help to the police." She made it clear, however, that she was objective and not a "judge and jury."

Betscher said his aunt told him the state offered her an attractive buyout package she could not refuse. Betscher and her colleagues were not sure when Burton left state government, but it appears to have been after 1990.

She lived in Richmond for several years after she retired and then moved to a retirement community in Cincinnati. She had several time-share vacation homes on the East Coast and died at 70 in Indian Rocks, Fla.

. . .

The man who hired Burton in Virginia, Warren G. Johnson, the now-retired director of what was then called the bureau of forensic science, said, "We stole her from Charlotte."

Burton's job was to run the serology operation, said Johnson. Forensic serologists determine the blood type and other identifying characteristics of biological evidence that would either exclude or include a particular suspect as the potential perpetrator of a crime.

"She was a sweetheart to work with," he said. She never complained and was always willing to help. "It was more than a job to her. It was an avocation. . . . She lived her job. She wasn't married, so the only thing she had in life was that job."

"She kept up with all the scientific changes," said Johnson.

One of her last big cases was that of serial killer Timothy Spencer, the "South Side Strangler" whose chilling crimes were the basis of Patricia Cornwell's best-selling book, "Postmortem." Spencer, executed in 1994, was the first person sentenced to die as a result of DNA evidence. Cornwell worked in the state lab at the same time as Burton.

"According to what Mary Jane told me, when Patricia Cornwell refers to 'the lab,' she's talking about Mary Jane," Jan Betscher said.

Dr. Marcella Fierro, the state's chief medical examiner, a colleague of Burton and the inspiration for Cornwell's character Kay Scarpetta, said Burton "used to work like a dog. She'd be working weekends."

"I remember talking to her one Saturday and saying, 'Mary Jane, you're your own worst enemy because you generate good results. It's the first time police have ever had such first-class serology service, so now they bring you more and more.

" 'The better job you do, the more work you generate for yourself,'" she said she told Burton.

Fierro believes Burton would have deliberately kept the material and that it was no error.

"It's not uncommon to realize that there might be [new] technologies or additional tests that you might want to perform in the future so you would archive those things," she said.

By error or design, Anderson is glad for what Burton did.

"The way she did her job - I consider it a blessing, not only for me but for other people," he said.

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or

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