Nov 3, 2023 - News

Virginia crime lab scientist who was hailed as a hero faces allegations of altering evidence

Illustration of a DNA strand in a manilla folder

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Virginia crime lab scientist was posthumously heralded as a hero after her old files helped exonerate 13 wrongfully convicted men.

What's happening: It turns out Mary Jane Burton might have actually been responsible for some of those wrongful convictions in the first place.

  • An investigative podcast released this year by VPM and iHeartMedia, "Admissible: Shreds of Evidence," uncovered allegations she altered evidence to help police and prosecutors make cases.

Why it matters: Present-day officials in the state crime lab are now weighing whether they need to undertake another review of Burton's old case files for more possible wrongful convictions.

Catch up fast: Burton's files were rediscovered in 2001, setting off a cascade of exonerations.

  • DNA testing had only recently emerged as the gold standard for forensic science and the Innocence Project was looking for evidence in a client's case that could be retested.
  • The state lab's director pulled the man's file and found Burton had been taping swabs containing evidence samples to all her reports.

The discovery prompted an unprecedented review by the state that ultimately resulted in the exoneration of 13 convicted men.

Details: That's where podcast host Tessa Kramer and reporting partner Sophie Bearman come in.

  • Kramer tells Axios she began her reporting thinking she might tell the story of a pioneering female scientist.
  • Instead, Kramer discovered Burton was a controversial figure in the state lab who, in the 1970s, was the subject of a whistleblower complaint that centered on allegations she changed test results to avoid eliminating suspects sought by police.

Plus: All those scraps of evidence Burton saved — colleagues told Kramer it was actually about selling her test results to juries when she testified via a well-practiced "show and tell" routine.

Of note: Leadership of the state crime lab was aware of the concerns surrounding Burton, Kramer reports. But officials never acted or intervened, allowing Burton to work another decade until her retirement in 1988.

What we're watching: Kramer has handed over much of the documentation she uncovered to the state.

  • Officials said last month they were reviewing the material, but hadn't decided yet whether a broader review of Burton's cases for potential wrongful convictions is warranted, per VPM.
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