A D.C. man’s fight for exoneration gained support Wednesday as two members of the jury that convicted him of murder in 1980 and the victim’s daughter told a judge that they supported a declaration of innocence because of forensic science errors.
Santae A. Tribble, 51, was convicted of killing a Southeast Washington cabdriver in 1978 after an FBI agent testified that he found Tribble’s hair in a stocking mask near the crime scene. A prosecutor put the odds of the hair belonging to someone else as high as “one chance . . . in 10 million.”
In fact, DNA test results in January ruled out Tribble as the source of hairs in the stocking — after Tribble spent 28 years in prison.
A D.C. Superior Court judge tossed out the conviction in May at prosecutors’ request and said Tribble could not be retried. But the court has yet to act on Tribble’s request to be declared innocent and eligible for compensation from the government. Prosecutors do not oppose the request, which was made in June.
“I was devastated to learn that I played a role in a wrongful conviction,” juror Susan Dankoff, a fundraising consultant who lives in suburban Maryland, wrote in a statement dated Saturday. “A man went to jail and lost so much of his life for a crime he didn’t commit. The District of Columbia owes this man more than it can ever repay.”
Juror Anita L. Woodruff, 54, a customer service representative who lives in Northwest Washington, said she had been “haunted” by suspicion that jurors wrongly discounted Tribble’s detailed alibi. “The main evidence was the hair in the stocking cap. . . . That’s what the jury based everything on. How else could his hair get in there unless he had the stocking cap on?” Woodruff wrote Friday.
The daughter of John McCormick, the slain cabdriver, said her late mother would have wanted police to find the real killer.
“I lost a father many years ago to murder. Now I learn that the wrong man spent years in prison for the crime,” Carolyn McCormick, 65, a high school chemistry and anatomy teacher in Austin, stated in an affidavit Monday. “. . . I will do anything to help to see that justice is done.”
Tribble’s attorney, Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C. Public Defender Service, filed the statements in asking Superior Court Judge Laura Cordero to rule on Tribble’s bid for innocence or hold a hearing.
Tribble is “virtually homeless” and living “in dire straits,” Levick said.
“More than thirty-four years have now elapsed since his nightmare began. It is past time to make amends,” Levick wrote. “This Court should either enter the unopposed order or grant Mr. Tribble the hearing he has for so long sought.”
The Washington Post featured Tribble’s case in a series of articles this year describing faulty hair matches by examiners in the FBI Laboratory and other flaws in the U.S. forensic science system. Besides Tribble, The Post described the case of another D.C. man, Kirk L. Odom, who served a long prison sentence before being exonerated in July of a 1981 rape.
In response, the Justice Department has announced a nationwide review of cases in which experts in the FBI Laboratory claimed to match defendants’ hairs to crimes.
The Post reported that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. Hair and fiber analysis was subjective and lacked scientific grounding, and the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate.
In Tribble’s case, the FBI Laboratory incorrectly linked a hair found near the murder scene to Tribble, and an agent testified that it matched Tribble’s “in all microscopic characteristics.”
In closing arguments, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further, saying, “There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair.”