Dana Gold Sits Down with Whistleblower on Admissible Podcast

Evidence is a key building block of our justice system. In our modern world, DNA and biological evidence is as irrefutable as science itself. However, what happens when it is flawed, disputed, or even manipulated? What happens when you are the person standing in the face of false evidence and calling out the truth? Admissible: Shreds of Evidence is a new podcast by Tessa Kramer exploring these concepts through the lens of a complicated and riveting story about exonerating wrongfully convicted black men from the 70s and 80s, the preserved evidence that saved them, and the whistleblower who tried to expose the truth to prevent wrongful convictions nearly 30 years ago.

Mary Jane Burton was a forensic serologist, someone who studies blood and other fluids from the body to identify and rule out suspects based off evidence found at the scene of a crime. She was highly respected in her community, working in the Virginia state crime lab, and was avid about saving evidence—even if this practice was neither safe nor in compliance with scientific protocols. Because of this practice, though, nearly 30 years later 13 wrongfully convicted men in Virginia were exonerated by conducting modern DNA testing on this preserved evidence. Burton was lauded in the press as a hero, someone who saw a future of forensic science no one else could. But that was far from the case.

Gina Demas was a young student working in Burton’s lab as an intern and a close mentee of Burton, who inspired by Burton’s work chose to major in biochemistry and pursue a job in forensics. Burton hired Demas to work with her as a trainee in the Virginia crime lab, and here, Demas started to notice Burton’s odd and often inappropriate methods of performing tests and recording data. Demas noticed that Burton would cut corners, like skipping species tests that would make sure the samples were from a human or keeping samples in conditions that would render their tests invalid but running the tests anyway. Over time, Demas even noticed Burton erasing data and changing it—a prohibited practice in a field where even mistakes are vital pieces of information.

Despite Demas’ and Burton’s close relationship, when Demas brought her concerns to Burton she was rebuffed. After other coworkers and other lab workers began to take notice as well, Demas started to take this problem seriously. She wrote memos to the Virginia Head of the Bureau of Forensic Science with a laundry list of complaints about how the lab was being run and how she was worried about these false test results supporting wrongful convictions of innocent people—a concern that was proven valid in time.

Demas escalated her concerns all the way to the Chief Chemist, the Director of the Lab, and the head of the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services who reported directly to the Governor and the head of the state Department of Health. She was told that she “wasn’t being a team player,” threatened with being fired if she continued to bring up these issues and was moved to a different department in the lab to do “product testing” in the Alcohol Beverage Control lab, proving that not only did the Bureau know about Burton’s unsavory practices, but they wanted to continue to cover them up. Demas turned to a lawyer to begin working on a case to blow the whistle and hopefully put an end to these damaging practices.

Even though her coworkers were supportive of Demas’ pursuit of justice, her name was the only one listed on the lawsuit and she begun to experience retaliation at work, like being passed over for promotions and even being called in for safety violations she never committed. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed twice caused by mishandlings by her lawyer and red tape, and everyone abandoned Demas as she became blacklisted in her professional community. Reflecting on this period, Demas shared on the podcast, “Being responsible for somebody else’s life—or death—I took that so seriously. And I don’t know what everybody else was thinking. I never could wrap my head around that, why it didn’t matter. Why they’d want to be so callous and so cavalier with somebody’s evidence.”

Eventually, state police escorted Gina out of the lab, and she was fired and could not continue working in forensics. Today, she owns a flower stand while her former colleagues’ careers took off and they continue to avoid the topic of Demas and Burton. Many tried to attribute the situation to “personality differences” that stand in opposition to the multiple forensic experts interviewed on Admissible who reviewed Demas’ evidence and agree: Burton was violating the most basic rules of not just science, but ethics as well.

On the 10th episode of Admissible, Government Accountability Project’s Education Director, Dana Gold, sat down with both Kramer and Demas to discuss how Demas’ story is classic retaliation against a whistleblower just trying to do the right thing.

In talking with Kramer about her work with whistleblowers, Gold described why experiences like Demas are so difficult for those experiencing it. “I represent so many whistleblowers, but most people come to us after they start experiencing retaliation, right? And their lives are… wrecked. Turned upside down. You know, we identify so much of ourselves, so much of our self-identity is based on our work. And it’s also just like our livelihood. To have that destroyed and attacked because you did the right thing because you’re doing your job and you’re good at it. It’s earth shattering.”

Demas shares this experience with whistleblowers of all kinds, sharing with Gold, “It’s kind of hard. I started out trying to have a career in forensic science. I got a degree – a BS in biochemistry, which was as close as you could get at the time. That was like my career. That was what I was going to do. And when all this stuff happened, of course I got set off on a different path. But the – all the stuff that happened to me is always in the back of my mind. I felt so guilty because what we were doing was mainly rapes and homicides. So, if anybody was in jail wrongly, they could be executed. That was always on my mind that somebody might be killed that shouldn’t be. And it never goes away. So, it’s hard to carry it around, but eventually I guess you get used to it.”

Demas was an employee who was passionate not just about science and her career, but about the cases she was working on and the real people behind them. She was an employee of conscience who was dedicated to doing the right thing, but who was ultimately punished for standing up for the people who would be unable to defend themselves against Burton’s falsified data. If Virginia had prioritized justice, truth, and the brave employee who was dedicated to it over protecting and wrongdoing, they would still have Demas as an exceptional employee and advocate for ethical practices, with Demas excelling at her chosen career.

At Government Accountability Project, we focus on repairing the harm done to not just the whistleblower as an individual but the culture, laws, and practices as well. When thinking about Demas’ case, Gold reflected that it was a very different time with very different whistleblower laws than we have today—which though better, are still not up to par.

When asked what could be done today to repair the damage done so long ago, Gold stated, “Virginia needs release a formal apology to Gina. It also needs to take responsibility for the unconscionable consequences of its failure to act on—and indeed, to knowingly allow to continue—lab practices that violated the most basic standards for handling evidence. As this story unfolds, Virginia should be investing in training all of state employees so that wrongdoing of this scope and scale doesn’t happen again. And, even though recognition is even a long shot, setting up some memorial or award for ethical workplace ethics in honor of Gina Demas would encourage other employees to report misconduct they witness in the workplace. Virginia, by making a statement that what Gina did was correct, can create a a workplace culture that values and supports employees who do the right thing.”

Ultimately, Gold expressed how grateful she was to get to meet and talk with Gina Demas, someone who has shown incredible bravery and resilience despite suffering retaliation without—at least until the reporting in this podcast—vindication.  What happened to her was not only unconscionable but unnecessary; it is a chilling warning about why protecting whistleblowers and acting to address the problems they disclose only makes organizations stronger. If we are to prevent such widespread harm from happening again— to Gina Demas and to the men who were wrongfully convicted based off Burton’s false data— we need stronger protections, both legally and culturally, for whistleblowers.

If you are interested in this story, listen to the full Admissible: Shreds of Evidence podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also attend a live event in Richmond, Virginia on April 19th, where Dana Gold will be taking part in a panel discussion about issues raised in the podcast entitled “Justice Denied: Unreliable Evidence and Accountability” at The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. Register for this free, in-person event here.