Tribble always maintained his innocence, and after he served his sentence, DNA tests on the hair this year excluded him as the source.
In a five-page order, Judge Laura A. Cordero granted Tribble’s request for a certificate of innocence.
“In light of the parties’ concession that new DNA evidence conclusively shows that the hair found in the stocking cap was not Mr. Tribble’s, the Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that he did not commit the crimes he was convicted of at trial,” Cordero wrote.
With the ruling, Tribble became the second D.C. man this year and the third since 2009 to be exonerated after serving a lengthy prison term based on false hair matches by different examiners in the FBI Laboratory. Their cases, which were featured in a series of articles in The Washington Post, helped focus national attention on flaws in the U.S. forensic science system.
In response, the Justice Department in July announced a nationwide review of all cases handled by the FBI Laboratory’s hair and fibers unit before 2000 — more than 21,000 cases in all — for instances in which improper lab reports or testimony may have contributed to a conviction. The lab began DNA testing of hair in 1996.
This summer, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced Tribble and Kirk L. Odom, whom a D.C. judge cleared this year of a 1981 rape, at a committee hearing about legislation that would overhaul standards for forensic science practitioners and researchers.
“It has long been clear that action is necessary to ensure improved support for forensic science and meaningful national standards and oversight,” Leahy said after shaking hands with the D.C. men.
In addition to Tribble and Odom, Donald E. Gates was cleared in 2009 of a 1981 murder in Rock Creek Park after DNA testing showed that only another man could have committed the crime.
A hair match also was critical evidence at his trial.
Tribble declined to comment Friday. In a letter to Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield this month urging a quick decision, Sandra K. Levick, the attorney who helped clear all three D.C. men, said that Tribble “is destitute. He has no job, no possessions other than a few items of clothing and personal effects, no savings, no source of income and no prospects for employment.”
The Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known
for years that flawed forensic testimony and false matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people.
Hair analysis was subjective and lacked scientific research into how often hairs of different people might appear to match, and the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate.