Instead, officers took the surprised 17-year-old to headquarters. Years later, Tribble, now 51, struggled to find the words to accept what ensued: a murder conviction and his imprisonment for nearly three decades.
“I just never believed — I never believed that — I never believed that they could prove a person . . . guilty that was innocent,” he said quietly in his lawyer’s office. “I never thought I would be found guilty until I was actually found guilty.” He added, “I didn’t see the light of day again for 25 years.”
Tribble agreed to discuss his case while on lifetime parole and in the presence of his D.C. Public Defender Service lawyer, Sandra K. Levick. Tall, lean and possessing the watchful bearing of a man who has spent his entire adult life in prison or on parole, Tribble said he hoped that describing his case and the toll of lost decades would help prevent wrongful convictions, although his own fate remains pending before a judge.
Released from prison in 2003 after serving 25 years for a slaying for which he has always maintained his innocence, he spent an additional three years in jail for failing to meet his parole conditions. He left a halfway house this fall and spent the winter staying with a friend and searching for work to pay rent.
At an age when others ponder retirement, he said his prospects of building a life without a high school diploma, work history or skills are “kind of bleak.”
“It’s hard to find jobs, and I’m not as qualified as many,” Tribble said. “. . . The fact I’m on parole for robbery and murder, that doesn’t help.”
Still, Tribble is more upbeat than he was in prison. “Many people [were] concerned about my adjustment back to society. I think the hardest thing to adjust to was leaving society,” Tribble said. “To be snatched away from everyone that you’ve ever known, your family,” he said, his voice drifting off.
The following account is drawn from interviews, Tribble’s trial transcript and other court records. The passage of time has dimmed memories, and several witnesses have died.
In Washington in the summer of 1978, President Jimmy Carter was preparing to host a Middle East peace summit between the leaders of Egypt and Israel at nearby Camp David, and a young city council member named Marion Barry was making in his first bid for mayor.
For Tribble, who had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, it “was an average summer” of sports and hanging out with friends and girls. But changes loomed as what would have been his junior year in high school ended, and boys in the neighborhood moved away, joined the service or took jobs. “I remember like it was yesterday,” he said with a smile.
Tribble and his brother and two sisters grew up working class, with a mother who worked full time as an assistant nurse at Glendale Hospital, then cooked her children “a proper dinner.” She took them on summer trips to Atlantic City and to see cousins in Austin. When Santae started elementary school, their father, a federal warehouse laborer, left home.