As her co-workers walked by the quiet, efficient forensic scientist, it's doubtful any of them thought for a moment her work would one day have a greater impact than anyone could have foreseen . Mary Jane Burton was an employee of the crime laboratory at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Years after her death, a simple procedure she always followed would assist in the exoneration of men wrongly convicted of horrendous crimes.
Little is known of Mary Jane's early life. She was born Mary Jane Graf in Cincinnati, Ohio and earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati in 1950. She married John W. Burton, Jr., with whom she opened a bakery. He died of pneumonia in 1963, not long after they were married in 1960. Mary Jane kept the bakery open with the help of her mother-in-law, until she could sell it. Thereafter, she went to work for the coroner's office in Cincinnati as a chemist for the crime lab. She then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in the early 1970s and worked for authorities there. From 1973 to 1988, she worked for the state of Virginia as a serologist. In An offer of employment caused her to move to Virginia, and she took up the position she would hold until she retired in 1988. By all accounts, Mary Jane was a tireless worker, and soon gained a reputation for brilliance and tenacity.
Unlike other forensic scientists of her time, Mary Jane believed in saving a small sample of any tests she performed. A cotton swab, a piece of clothing, a stained piece of paper – anything that had touched a suspect's bodily fluids was taped to the lab sheet that went into her files. It was an unusual procedure, and the reason she did this, according to family members, was because she believed that in the future better technical procedures would become available to assess forensic samples with greater technical accuracy. This was years before DNA testing came into being, and some have speculated that Mary Jane anticipated such a procedure.
Mary Jane's procedures first came to light in the case of Marvin Anderson. Anderson had been convicted of a brutal rape in 1982, at the age of 18, and had at last been granted parole in 1997. He learned of DNA testing and, as he'd maintained his innocence through the years, believed it might be able to clear his name. He contacted Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project in 2001, who in turn got in touch with the Virginia authorities, and began digging into the case. At Neufeld's urging, director Paul Ferrara of the state Forensic Department pulled Anderson's file and began thumbing through it. He found a blood work report with, to his surprise, the tip of a cotton swab taped to it. Ferrara immediately realized that this sample might provide the data needed to settle the Anderson case once and for all. A DNA test was performed, and the results proved that Anderson could not have been the rapist. On August 21, 2002, Governor Mark Warner of Virginia granted Marvin Anderson a full pardon.
Since then, in at least two other cases, Mary Jane's standard procedure of always keeping a sample cleared men who had been convicted of crimes they didn't commit. She has been hailed as a hero; some have called her an "angel from God". After her retirement, Mary Jane returned to Cincinnati to live near her nephew and his wife. During a vacation in Florida, she died while on vacation at Indian Rocks Beach.
Gelineau, Kirsten, "Saved From the Grave", MSNBC – Crime & Punishment
. October 16, 2005. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9666591/> (September 2006)
Green, Frank, "Scientist's Legacy: Freedom for Two", Richmond Times-Dispatch Online
. February 18, 2003. <http://www.truthinjustice.org/mjburton.htm> (September 2006)
Personal interview with Holle Humphries, Ph.D., niece of Mary Jane Burton, Oct. 26, 2006.