D.C. man petitions for innocence after DNA exonerates co-defendant in 1978 murders

Cleveland Wright has asked a D.C. Court judge to clear his name after new DNA test results last year exonerated his co-defendant in two similar 1978 murders. (Alexandra Garcia/The Washington Post)
August 26, 2013

A D.C. man who spent 28 years in prison for murder asked a judge Monday to declare him innocent after DNA test results last year exonerated his co-defendant.

Cleveland Wright, 55, who was paroled in 2007, was convicted in the 1978 killing of a floral shop worker.

In an interview accompanied by his attorney, Wright maintained his innocence, just as he has since his August 1978 arrest. Wright acknowledged that he sold guns as a young adult to support a dice-game habit but said his time in prison changed him from a teenage street hustler into a born-again volunteer at his Pentecostal church in Northeast Washington.

“All I can say is, I never killed anyone,” Wright said. “All I know is that God set me free.”

Wright said he has forgiven everyone involved in his conviction.

“I thank Him for giving me a new look at life, so I can comfort somebody else that’s going through something,” said Wright, quoting passages from the Bible, which he says he reads daily. “I can let them know what God did for me.”

Wright, then 20, and Santae Tribble, then 17, were childhood friends whom prosecutors accused of teaming up to rob and kill two men using the same gun, two weeks apart in the same Southeast Washington neighborhood in July 1978. Although both men were charged in both slayings, juries convicted one defendant in each killing.

Key evidence in both cases came from the FBI Laboratory, where a forensic expert microscopically matched Tribble’s hair to one in a stocking found near one of the crime scenes. The killer wore a stocking mask.

However, court-ordered DNA testing last year confirmed that none of the 13 hairs retrieved from the stocking shared Tribble’s or Wright’s genetic profile. In December, Superior Court Judge Laura A. Cordero found that “by clear and convincing evidence” Tribble, now 52, was not guilty and that he had nothing to do with the crime for which he was convicted.

Wright was acquitted in that case. But in a new filing Monday, Wright asked Cordero to consider his conviction in the other slaying.

Prosecutors in Wright’s trial never argued that his hair was found in the stocking mask. But Wright’s attorney said that the flawed FBI hair match implicated him as well as his co-defendant at both men’s trials and that new DNA results and Tribble’s exoneration were clear and convincing evidence of Wright’s innocence.

“The visual match of the hair that seemed to place Mr. Tribble and therefore Mr. Wright, his close friend, on the scene misled. The hairs were not theirs,” said Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C. Public Defender Service.

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“If neither of them was the masked murderer of [the first victim], then neither of them was the murderer of [the second], as the same gun was used to kill both men under similar circumstances,” wrote Levick, who handled each man’s post-conviction assertion.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., said the office “is reviewing the motion and has no further comment at this time.”

Prosecutors supported Tribble’s effort to vacate his conviction after he served 28 years in prison, although the government neither joined nor contested his petition for innocence.

Machen’s office said in Tribble’s case that “the government is not in a position — 34 years after the murder was committed — to develop new evidence that might be used in a new trial.”

Tribble’s case was featured in a series of stories last year about flaws in hair examinations that have led to wrongful convictions in the District and elsewhere.

A resulting federal review of more than 21,000 criminal cases referred to the FBI Laboratory’s hair unit before 2000 has identified as many as 27 death penalty convictions in which FBI experts may have made similar errors.

Wright was convicted of robbing and killing William Horn, a 52-year-old floral shop worker, as he walked from his car to his apartment building about 2:30 a.m. July 13, 1978.

Tribble was convicted of robbing and killing Diamond Cab driver John McCormick, 63, on his front porch after he parked his car after work about 3:10 a.m. July 26.

Both victims were middle-aged men, shot with .32-caliber bullets that police said were fired from the same weapon blocks from Tribble’s mother’s home. Wright was acquitted in McCormick’s killing, and Tribble was acquitted in Horn’s murder.

Besides the hair, prosecutors relied on two informants. One told police that Wright and Tribble sold a .32-caliber revolver to her roommate. Another said Wright and Tribble admitted to the killings. Police found .32-caliber ammunition at both men’s homes.

But the witnesses’ accounts to police shifted several times and differed at key points with the facts established by investigators. The gun in question disappeared, and the witness who described it changed her story after being offered a reward and threatened with a subpoena. The second witness was facing charges in a robbery and a probation violation and received no prison time in a plea deal to reduced charges. He spent most of the next two decades in prison for burglaries, thefts and robberies.

Wright was on probation for selling handguns to undercover federal agents at the time of his arrest but kept up the practice to feed his dice habit, accounting for the gun sale and ammunition that police found, Levick said.

The DNA results and Tribble’s exoneration in McCormick’s case also mean that Horn could not have been killed the way prosecutors alleged or witnesses said, she wrote. “No reasonable jury could have convicted Mr. Wright of the murder of William Horn had it known as a fact that Santae Tribble had nothing to do with the murder of Mr. McCormick and that neither Mr. Tribble’s nor Mr. Wright’s hairs were in the stocking mask,” Levick said.

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