A Superior Court judge has exonerated a District man who spent 28 years in prison for murder, the fifth D.C. man to be cleared since 2009 after being convicted in connection with flawed FBI forensic testimony.
Judge Laura A. Cordero on Friday declared Cleveland Wright, 56, innocent of murdering William Horn, a D.C. floral shop worker, in an early morning robbery in July 1978.
“The Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Wright did not commit the crimes of first-degree murder while armed, first-degree felony murder, and armed robbery of Mr. Horn, of which he was convicted in this case,” Cordero wrote in a 14-page opinion.
“This is the day that Mr. Wright and his family have been waiting for for more than 36 years. Judge Cordero has given him the complete victory he deserves,” said Wright’s attorney, Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C Public Defender Service, which uncovered four of the wrongful D.C. convictions. “We are proud to share in his victory and in the undoing of a terrible miscarriage of justice.”
The ruling ends a long legal odyssey for Wright, whose case helped uncover similar problems in FBI testimony across the country. Thirty-six years ago, Wright, then 20, and Santae Tribble, then 17, were childhood friends who were accused of teaming to rob and kill two men, using the same gun, two weeks apart, in the same Southeast Washington neighborhood.
Both were charged in both killings. Tribble was convicted of the slaying of a taxi driver, and Wright of the slaying of the flower shop worker.
Wright was released from prison in 2007 and placed on lifetime parole.
However, DNA testing in 2012 ruled out claims at trial by the prosecution and an FBI Laboratory forensic hair expert that a hair found in a stocking near the taxi driver’s killing probably came from Tribble. A witness said the killer had worn a stocking mask, but DNA results showed that hairs in the stocking did not come from either defendant.
The Washington Post featured Tribble’s case in a series of reports about flaws in FBI hair examinations that had led to wrongful convictions in the District and elsewhere. In response, the Justice Department and FBI announced last month that they had found that nearly every examiner in the FBI lab’s hair unit who gave evidence against criminal defendants overstated testimony in nearly every trial over a two-
decade period ending in 2000.
Cordero exonerated Tribble in December 2012. Then-U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in January 2014 agreed to vacate Wright’s conviction, agreeing that his prosecution relied on now-
However, the government took no position on Wright’s petition for a certificate of innocence, which would have helped him obtain financial compensation.
In her ruling, Cordero granted that certification, saying that the only evidence at Wright’s trial that directly linked him to the crime came from two state witnesses whose testimony has become unreliable, because their other claims had been discredited by the DNA results exonerating Wright’s co-defendant.