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Saved from the grave

Years after her death, the record keeping of a forensic scientist is freeing innocent men in Virginia.
Mary Jane Burton's unusual habit of saving samples of the evidence she tested led to the exoneration of three men, years after her death in 1999.
Mary Jane Burton's unusual habit of saving samples of the evidence she tested led to the exoneration of three men, years after her death in 1999.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The forensic scientist cut off the tip of a cotton swab and taped it to a lab sheet next to a snippet of stained clothing.

Always save a piece of what you test, Mary Jane Burton instructed her watchful trainee.

But why? This was 1977, years before the invention of DNA testing. Yet day after day, she repeated this seemingly pointless procedure under the glow of the cramped laboratory’s fluorescent lights — taping swabs smeared with blood, semen and saliva and inserting them into their case files.

Finally, when the ache of arthritis in her hands grew unbearable, she retired from the Virginia state crime lab, leaving behind scores of forgotten files, each holding samples imprinted with nature’s barcode.

The lab she worked in is gone now, but a few miles away, behind a secure, rolling metal door in a museum-like beige building, is a cavernous warehouse where 17 numbered rows of metal shelves tower 28 feet to the ceiling. They hold 75,000 covered cardboard boxes — more than 4,000 of them the property of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

Many of the tiny pieces of bloodied clothing and cotton swabs that Burton taped down were tucked inside their manila folders, filed away in boxes scattered throughout the room.

There they remained undisturbed for years, waiting for science to catch up with them — and waiting for someone to discover that they are there.

The scene of the crime
The bicyclist sat on the side of the tree-lined path, clutching his knee.

He must be injured, the young woman worried when she saw him. She set down the bucket of chicken she’d been carrying home for a late dinner and walked over to help.

The man grabbed her arms and dragged her off the path into a wooded area. He told her he had a gun and demanded money. She handed him all she had — 21 cents. He snatched her wallet and found another quarter. Then he punched her in the face.

For three hours, the woman was savaged — raped twice, sodomized, beaten. The rapist, who was black, told his young, white victim she reminded him of his white girlfriend.

At the same time, in another part of town, a young, black man named Marvin Anderson stood in his mother’s driveway, washing his orange Oldsmobile Starfire. Back at their apartment, Anderson’s young, white girlfriend was preparing dinner.

It was July 17, 1982, and interracial relationships were rare in the small Southern town.

It wasn’t long before Anderson was under arrest.

Bagging the evidence
Burton handled the evidence in the young woman’s rape case just like all the others. When she finished testing the specimen on a cotton swab, she cut off the top, took a strip of Scotch tape and secured it to a lab sheet.

At the defense table, Anderson was terrified. How could anyone think he had done such horrible things?

Burton took the witness stand. She detailed for the jury the evidence she had received and tested — vaginal and oral swabs, hair cuttings, fingernail scrapings.

The victim was a type AB secretor, which complicated matters, she explained. The assailant’s fluids were mixed up with the victim’s, and her AB blood type essentially masked his blood type.

“So because of the victim’s blood type, it’s impossible to say what the type was of the person that assaulted her?” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramon Chalkley asked Burton.

“That’s right,” she replied. She could draw no other conclusions from the physical evidence.

'His face will always haunt me'
But the victim testified that the man who had brutalized her — a monster, she said, who had the eyes of the devil — was unquestionably Anderson.

“His face will always haunt me,” she said.

Other witnesses insisted that Anderson had been washing his car at the time of the attack. His attorney pleaded with the jury: “Two wrongs will never make a right.”

The pleas were no match the prosecutor’s gruesome description of the assault.

“It’s the stuff nightmares are made out of,” Chalkley said. “The things that make you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and each second seems like an eternity, because you’re frightened to move.”

The jury foreman read the verdict and Anderson’s world went black.


His sentence: 210 years in prison.

He could hear anguished wails as his mother fell apart in the courtroom seats behind him. He turned to look but saw nothing but darkness. His body was going numb.

He was just a regular 18-year-old kid — a volunteer firefighter, active in church, close to his family. How was he going to survive prison? How did he end up here?

Why wouldn’t anyone believe him?

A premonition
Standard procedure in Virginia was for biological evidence to be returned to the authorities after testing. After a few years, it would be destroyed, except in death penalty cases.

Why Mary Jane Burton insisted on saving such samples is as big a mystery as Burton herself.

Some speculate that Burton had a premonition that science would improve, that the samples she saved would one day prove useful. Her trainee, Deanne Dabbs, recalls a simpler explanation: Burton just liked to have something physical to show to a jury when she testified. Juries like to see what you’ve worked on, Burton told Dabbs in 1977.

For all the time she spent at work, few people really knew the tall, lanky scientist. In her crisp white lab coat and black lace-up sneakers, Burton spent long hours at the black epoxy resin counters of the lab, surrounded by pipettes and Bunsen burners, a beaker of Mary Jane peanut butter candies on her desk. She rarely spoke of her personal life.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in chemistry in 1950, she took a job at the Cincinnati coroner’s office. Ten years later, she married John Burton, a Lebanon, Ohio, baker. But just three years after they wed, he died of pneumonia. Mary Jane never remarried; no one could recall her even going out on a date.

A tenacious forensic scientist
Work consumed her. Nights and weekends were often spent at the lab, and she spoke passionately with friends about her job. She went on to crime labs in Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond; co-workers recognized her as a brilliant and tenacious forensic scientist.

In one case, she found glass embedded in a rape suspect’s shoe and sent the cops back to the victim’s house for another look. Under an unlocked window, police found a broken Christmas tree ornament. Burton confirmed a match, and the man was convicted.

She retired in 1988, and moved back to Cincinnati to be closer to a nephew, Keith Betscher, and his wife. She rented a lovely two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community.

A Roman Catholic, she now had time to attend church daily, play bridge, travel. As always, she kept things simple, neat and orderly. She drove a basic 1995 Dodge Intrepid and except for a new couch, all her furniture was from the 1970s and still pristine.

In 1998, the 70-year-old retiree had Christmas dinner with the Betschers, and then she drove to Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., for a vacation.

She never returned. On Jan. 9, 1999, she died alone on the bathroom floor of her condo.

A shocking discovery
On June 18, 1997, after 15 years behind bars, Anderson was released on parole, but freedom was not easy. He had to register as a sex offender. His name was destroyed. He drew whispers and sour looks. Finding work was difficult.

He eventually got a job as a trucker and tried to lead a normal life, but clearing his name remained his priority. He’d learned about DNA, knew the biological evidence in his case could clear him, but was told it had been lost or destroyed.

In 2001, Anderson’s attorney, Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, wrote a letter to Paul Ferrara, director of the state’s Department of Forensic Science, and asked him to dig up Anderson’s case file. Perhaps the file would suggest where the evidence had gone.

Ferrara asked the records center staff to find the file. The box code, a long string of digits in the facility’s database, directed workers to the correct aisle, the exact shelf. They sent it to Ferrara’s office.

Ferrara opened the folder and idly flicked through the pages, eyes scanning fine lines of type for any indication of when the physical evidence had been returned to the authorities.

Suddenly, Ferrara’s thumb froze. He stared at the bloodwork report in front of him in disbelief. Scotch-taped to the paper was the tip of a cotton swab.

He knew instantly. The tiny piece of cotton, secured to the sheet all those years ago by Burton, contained a smear of biological fluid — the key to unlocking the truth.

'I'll be home in 15 minutes'
Anderson was driving his truck home from a job when his cell phone rang.

“What are you doing right now?” Neufeld asked.

“I’m on the interstate,” Anderson replied.

“I’ve got some good news for you, but first, I need to ask you a question,” Neufeld said. “How do you feel about still pursuing your innocence?”

Anderson paused. Where was this going?

“Mr. Neufeld, for 17 years, I’ve been trying to prove my innocence,” he said slowly. “Why should I stop now?”

Then Neufeld said something. Something about evidence ... in his case ... being found.

The truck was loud. Had he misheard?

“I’ll be home in 15 minutes,” Anderson said. “Call me back in 15 minutes.”

More good news
The sophisticated DNA testing that was not available back in 1982 revealed what Anderson and his loved ones had known all along: He was innocent.

Chalkley, the prosecutor, read all about it in the newspaper. Then he walked to the bathroom and vomited.

On Aug. 21, 2002, Gov. Mark R. Warner granted Anderson a full pardon. He became the first Virginian to be cleared by genetic testing.

As Anderson’s story spread, others stepped forward, wondering if evidence had been saved in their cases, too.

Burton’s samples were found in the case files of two other men convicted of rape. DNA testing cleared them both. Julius Ruffin, who had always maintained his innocence, was freed after 21 years in prison, pardoned by the governor. And after 23 years and three days behind bars, Arthur Lee Whitfield walked out a free man.

Prosecutors said DNA tests on the samples revealed the same man — Aaron Doxie III — was likely responsible for the rapes in both the Ruffin and Whitfield cases. Doxie is already serving three life sentences for a separate sexual assault. Prosecutors did not pursue charges against him because Burton and other key witnesses are dead.

In Anderson’s case, the samples Burton saved implicated John Otis Lincoln, an inmate who was serving 23 years for grand larceny, assault, robbery and burglary. Lincoln was convicted of the rape in 2003 and sentenced to three life terms plus 40 years.

Starting over
Now 41, Anderson says his life is coming together at last. He bought his own trucking company last year. He relishes being able to kiss his three children good night. He hopes to marry their mother someday.

“I have my good days, I have my bad days,” he says. “That’s part of life.”

In September 2004, the governor ordered the lab to check the archives for more samples Burton might have saved. The quest to find others who might be exonerated goes on.

For those saved by her work, Mary Jane is an angel, a hero, their savior.

“That woman is a blessing from God,” Anderson said. “She was always looking toward the future.”

Her nephew laughs when he thinks about the impact his quiet, unassuming aunt has had.

“There’s not a lot of people in this world that can affect other people’s lives after they’re dead,” Betscher said. “I chuckle at that a lot.”