New Hope For The Wronged

From 1973 to 1988, serologist Mary Jane Burton saved thousands of bits of evidence from crimes. Six years after her death, her work has helped exonerate five men.

December 29, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

RICHMOND, Va. -- Here among 660 cardboard boxes neatly stacked in a state warehouse are tiny scraps of hope that were long ago packed away by a forensic scientist named Mary Jane Burton.

As a serologist for Virginia from 1973 to 1988, Burton ran blood tests on evidence collected from crime scenes throughout the state. But the statuesque widow who worked nights and weekends did something no other lab worker did: She saved thousands of bits of clothing and cotton swabs used in her tests, taping them to worksheets and tucking them into case files.

Burton's habit of squirreling away evidence - and the more recent realization that the evidence had been preserved - has led to the exoneration of five men, including two this month, and prompted Gov. Mark R. Warner to order wide-scale testing in convictions where DNA evidence may remain. Some say Burton's stockpile has become its own kind of evidence - of a flawed criminal justice system in Virginia.

"Her impact has been tremendous, bigger than any other one person when it comes to raising awareness of wrongful convictions in a state that really had no awareness," says Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. "Not only has she had a huge impact on the state, but also on five people's lives. Probably more."

Of the 13 wrongful convictions documented in Virginia, five came to light because of Burton's work.

Burton died in 1999, and no one can explain with certainty her motivation in saving the amount of evidence she did. At the end of her career, DNA testing in criminal cases was still in its infancy. And storing the evidence as she did departed from her laboratory's general practice of returning it to the police departments, where it probably would have been destroyed.

Lab workers are rummaging through boxes containing more than 150,000 manila folders to search for Burton's work, which could amount to hundreds of cases with usable DNA evidence. Warner said in a statement that looking back through the files is "the only morally acceptable course."

For Marvin Lamont Anderson, the evidence Burton secured in his case file years ago righted years of wrong.

When he went to prison in 1982, Anderson was 18 years old and had been convicted of rape. Like the four others later exonerated by Burton's saved evidence, Anderson was found guilty largely because the victim identified him in court.

Anderson was paroled in June 1997, but still sought to clear his name. By then, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the New York-based Innocence Project had taken up his cause.

"We were told repeatedly that all of the evidence in his case had been destroyed," says Peter J. Neufeld, director of the New York project.

But in 2001, Neufeld asked Dr. Paul B. Ferrara, director of Virginia's Division of Forensic Science, to make one last check in the old case file. As Ferrara looked for a notation stating where swabs from a blood test had been sent after testing, he saw something amazing: the tested samples themselves, taped to a sheet of paper.

"Holy cow," Ferrara recalls thinking. "I realized immediately the implications of what I was looking at."

A DNA test of the material revealed not only that Anderson had no connection to the crime, but it supplied a direct match to another man, John Otis Lincoln, whose DNA was registered in the state's database. Anderson, now a truck driver, was pardoned in August 2002, and a jury convicted Lincoln of the rape in 2003.

Encouraged by the Anderson case, two prisoners came forward to say they, too, believed that DNA testing could clear their names. Julius Earl Ruffin and Arthur Lee Whitfield had each been convicted of rapes in Norfolk in the early 1980s. Tests of evidence saved by Burton exonerated Ruffin in 2003 and Whitfield in 2004.

Those cases led Warner to call last year for the re-examination of about 15,000 randomly selected case files from the Burton era. That search uncovered 31 cases with usable DNA in which defendants had been sent to prison, and from them two more exonerations emerged, both in rape cases: Willie Neville Davidson, 49, convicted in Norfolk in 1981, and Phillip Thurman, 51, convicted in Alexandria in 1985. Warner pardoned both men last week, and has ordered a sweeping investigation of the remaining case files.

Often, prisoners claiming to have been wrongly convicted have little hope that modern DNA testing can be applied to old evidence. That's because, once tested, evidence usually is turned over to police departments, medical examiners and court clerks, who for space reasons often destroy the items after a few years.

In Virginia, however, returning the evidence did not become official policy until 1989, a year after Burton retired.

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