A D.C. Superior Court judge concluded Monday that DNA evidence exonerates a man who spent 26 years in prison in the 1982 killing of a Washington woman.
Kevin Martin’s case marks the fifth time in as many years that federal prosecutors in the District have acknowledged that errors by an elite FBI forensic unit had led to a conviction that should be overturned.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. joined defense calls to vacate Martin’s conviction and declare him innocent of the attack on Ursula C. Brown. Machen cited DNA evidence that contradicts a previous finding by forensic experts linking Martin to a hair collected at the crime scene.
Martin, who had long professed his innocence in the killing, left the D.C. courthouse with his name cleared. He was paroled in 2009 and lives in San Francisco.
“I am free at last. I am humbled. I never gave up,” Martin said, hugging and high-fiving his attorneys. Martin’s younger sister, his fiancee, his 6-year-old niece and other family members gathered around.
“I just want to live,” said Martin, 50.
The hearing came as Machen’s office nears the end of a 21 / 2-year review of all local convictions involving FBI hair matches that was launched after demands by the D.C. Public Defender Service. Since 2009, the service has cleared four other men convicted by such matches.
And the troubling problems exposed in the FBI lab’s methods have led the FBI and Justice Department to undertake a nationwide review of more than 2,100 convictions in the 1980s and 1990s.
Martin’s is the first wrongful conviction uncovered by prosecutors in the District review, and they said it is the only problem case they have found. The public defender’s office praised the effort to exonerate Martin but criticized the U.S. attorney’s office’s review as secretive and the disclosure of the results as incomplete and overdue.
Brown, 19, was abducted Nov. 1, 1982, after her car was struck from behind on the Anacostia Freeway during a rash of what authorities called “bump-and-rob” assaults. Her partially clothed body was later found near a dumpster next to an elementary school in Southeast Washington. She had been sexually assaulted, shot in the head and stabbed.
Martin, then a 17-year-old PCP addict, was arrested and pleaded guilty to a series of similar armed robberies that occurred one week later, but, from the start, maintained that he knew nothing about Brown’s death.
As they built a case, prosecutors told the defense that an FBI examiner was prepared to testify that a pubic hair found on Brown’s sneaker was a match to Martin. In March 1984, Martin, who faced multiple life sentences if the case went to trial, entered an Alford plea to manslaughter. Under such a plea, a defendant acknowledges that prosecutors have sufficient evidence for a conviction but does not admit guilt.
Martin was sentenced in 1984 to 35 years to life in prison for manslaughter and robbery. He wrote letters to the judge and defense attorneys claiming his innocence in the slaying.
Lawyer Bernard Grimm, and later the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, began to look into the case.
Martin sought DNA tests in 2001, but D.C. police said evidence in his case had been lost. Police subsequently moved evidence into a new facility, and boxes from the investigation into Brown’s killing turned up last November, according to court papers. While the hair was not located, other genetic evidence was.
In March, as first reported by WTTG (Channel 5), Martin learned that new DNA testing excluded him as a source of biological evidence collected from the victim.
Prosecutors said the DNA matched William D. Davidson, who is serving a sentence of 65 years to life for multiple offenses related to “bump-and-rape” cases, including the killing of Brown, in which he said he was only the lookout.
In court papers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael T. Ambrosino and Grimm wrote that “DNA testing conducted at the expense of the government along with other factors . . . conclusively establish that Kevin Martin is innocent of the rape and murder of Ursula Brown.”
The first of the D.C. exonerations occurred in December 2009, when Superior Court Judge Fred B. Ugast ordered the release of Donald E. Gates, then 60, after DNA results cleared him of a rape-murder for which he had spent 28 years in prison.
The D.C. Public Defender Service, which represented Gates, also found that prosecutors failed for many years to disclose that the Justice Department’s inspector general had identified problems with work done by the FBI agent who linked Gates’s hair to the crime.
Ugast ordered Machen’s office to review all cases handled by the agent, Michael P. Malone. In 2012, facing continued demands by the public defenders, Machen ordered a review of all convictions that relied on FBI hair analysis.
Since then, Superior Court judges have exonerated two more public defender clients — Santae A. Tribble of murder and Kirk L. Odom of rape — after DNA tests contradicted claims by FBI hair examiners.
The murder conviction of a third client, Cleveland Wright, was vacated, and he continues to ask the court to declare him innocent. The three men collectively spent nearly 80 years in prison.
Their cases were featured in The Washington Post, and the FBI and Justice Department in 2012 announced they would review FBI testimony in all convictions involving FBI hair matches in the 1980s and 1990s.
Machen’s office said its inquiry identified 122 District convictions before 2000 that included an FBI hair match, completed reviewing 106 of them and found only one case, Martin’s, in which prosecutors believed the conviction depended on the FBI finding or in which DNA testing would yield a “viable” claim for innocence, Machen spokesman Bill Miller said.
Grimm praised Machen’s office, saying, “Had the U.S. attorney’s office not reviewed these cases, Kevin Martin never would have found out that evidence could be retested, and he still would be on parole for rape and homicide.”
Miller said prosecutors will begin notifying defendants’ last counsel in the 106 cases — it started Monday with the Public Defender Service — and notify the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project for defendants with other counsel, in case those lawyers had retired, moved or died.
The Public Defender Service said prosecutors’ approach may not have led to the reversal of Gates, Tribble or Wright’s convictions because public defenders were not their last counsel.
They said that for more than four years, prosecutors refused repeated requests to release the names of all defendants whose convictions relied on FBI hair evidence to the public defender’s office and the standards for their review or to disclose cases as reviews were completed.
On Wednesday, a new report by the Justice Department inspector general’s office criticized the department and FBI for failing to give proper and timely notice to defendants in cases affected by problems with hair evidence.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office appears to have learned very little from the errors devastatingly portrayed in [the] OIG report. This report shows that delay is inexcusable and that it can have tragic consequences,” said Sandra Levick, chief of special litigation for the Public Defender Service.
Machen’s office said that it did not have all of the names four years ago and that it took great effort to identify cases based on FBI lab reports.
The office devoted thousands of hours to the review and asked leaders of the local defense bar, including public defenders, to alert the office to post-conviction innocence claims, Miller said.
At the close of the Monday hearing, Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter wished Martin well.
“Take care, Mr. Martin,” he said. “You look like a happy man.”