Santae Tribble cleared in 1978 murder based on DNA hair test

December 14, 2012

A District man who spent 28 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit was formally declared innocent by a Superior Court judge Friday, ending his long fight for exoneration.

Santae A. Tribble, 51, was convicted in the killing of a Southeast Washington taxi driver in 1978 after an FBI examiner said he microscopically matched Tribble’s hair to one in a stocking found near the crime scene. The killer was wearing a stocking mask.

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.

But Justice Department managers limited their review of hair cases to the work of one agent, even as they learned that many examiners’ matches were often wrong and that numerous examiners overstated the significance of matches in federal, state and local cases, using bogus statistics or exaggerated claims, The Post found.

In many cases that the agency did review and found problems with, prosecutors never notified defendants or their attorneys of the issues uncovered.

In Tribble’s case, the FBI agent testified at trial that the hair from the stocking matched Tribble’s “in all microscopic characteristics.”

In closing arguments, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further: “There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair.”

In January, court-ordered DNA testing by a private lab confirmed that none of the 13 hairs retrieved from the stocking shared Tribble’s genetic profile or that of his alleged accomplice, Cleveland Wright.

The lab also found that the 13 hairs came from three human sources, each of African origin, except for one — which came from a dog — facts over which the FBI-trained examiners disagreed or missed outright.

Cordero tossed out Tribble’s conviction at the request of prosecutors in May, saying he could not be tried again.

The government later notified Cordero that it would not contest Tribble’s effort to be declared innocent, although prosecutors declined to join his motion.

“Because the hair evidence that implicated defendant now has been thoroughly discredited, and because the hair evidence was a key component of the government’s case at trial, the United States does not oppose the Court’s granting defendant’s request for a Certificate of Innocence,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. explained.

Under the D.C. Innocence Protection Act, the judge’s ruling allows Tribble to obtain compensation from the government for his wrongful imprisonment.

Including Tribble, 301 people in the United States have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing since 1989.

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, wrote Cordero in an affidavit in October. “I will do anything to help to see that justice is done.”

Spencer S. Hsu is an investigative reporter, two-time Pulitzer finalist and national Emmy award nominee.
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