A D.C. Superior Court judge has ordered the District government to pay $13.2 million to Santae A. Tribble, who was jailed for 28 years after being wrongfully convicted of killing a Southeast Washington taxi driver in 1978.
The award Friday brings to $39 million the damages amount the city has been ordered or agreed to pay over the past year to three District men wrongly imprisoned for decades.
They were convicted at trial through exaggerated claims about the reliability of FBI forensic hair matches, a pattern uncovered by the D.C. Public Defender Service and featured in a series of articles in The Washington Post.
Tribble, 55, was exonerated in 2012 after DNA testing revealed that he could not have contributed hairs found in a stocking near the scene of the crime, in which the attacker reportedly wore a stocking mask. At trial, an FBI examiner testified that the hairs microscopically matched Tribble’s, and prosecutors suggested to the jury that it would be a “1 in 10 million” coincidence if the hairs came from someone else. The jury convicted him in January 1980.
Tribble’s case and the others helped trigger a federal review that in April disclosed that FBI examiners systematically overstated testimony in nearly all hair match cases against criminal defendants for two decades before 2000.
Based on that finding, the Justice Department on Wednesday announced that it will look at trial transcripts from cases involving other FBI Laboratory units for similar “testimonial overstatement.”
Tribble’s “journey of injustice subjected [him] to all the horror, degradation, and threats to personal security and privacy inherent in prison life, each heightened by his youth, actual innocence, and life sentence,” D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Mott wrote in a 48-page opinion Friday.
“Mr. Tribble’s ordeal did not merely deprive him of his liberty in a constitutional sense — it ruined his life, leaving him broken in body and spirit and, quite literally, dying,” Mott wrote. The judge’s opinion cited Tribble’s imprisonment at age 17 and attributed his severe depression, heroin addiction, HIV and hepatitis to his incarceration.
Mott awarded Tribble compensatory damages of $400,000 for each year jailed; $956,000 in lost wages; $412,000 in medical expenses; and $100,000 for each year since his release and through 2019.
By 2019, medical experts testified, Tribble is expected to die from his advanced diseases.
Tribble, who lives in the Washington area near his son, grandson and brother, was unavailable for comment, his attorneys said. Mott’s opinion stated that Tribble is destitute and suffers from liver failure and cognitive impairment, among other ailments.
Nick Brustin, whose firm represented Tribble, said in a statement Friday that Tribble “continues to suffer after enduring so much and remains angry, but today is an important day for him and his family.”
Sandra K. Levick, chief of the D.C. Public Defender Service’s special litigation division whose work exonerated Tribble, said: “This is bittersweet. As Judge Mott eloquently writes, Mr. Tribble and his loved ones suffered so much. He more than earned this award.”
Robert Marus, a spokesman for D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), declined to comment, including whether the city would appeal, saying, “We are just beginning to review the decision.”
In court filings, attorneys for the District acknowledged Tribble’s “terrible loss” in a “tragic” case. Federal prosecutors did not oppose Tribble’s 2012 exoneration.
Racine’s office argued, however, that Tribble’s claims under the D.C. Unjust Imprisonment Act should be disallowed or offset because of nearly $1.4 million in damages that Tribble received from the U.S. government and argued against portions of his claims for wages, medical costs and damages.
Mott wrote that Tribble repeatedly was held in solitary confinement for stretches as long as nine months and described a 1999 prison transfer in which Tribble was “tasered, tear-gassed, and, at one point, held in four-point restraints and strapped to a concrete bed for four to five days, where he was forced to urinate and defecate on himself, all while in severe physical pain.”
Court-ordered DNA testing obtained by the public defender service confirmed that none of the 13 hairs retrieved from the crime scene stocking shared Tribble’s genetic profile or that of his alleged accomplice. Rather, the DNA testing found, the hairs came from three other human sources, except for one — which came from a dog — facts that FBI-trained examiners disputed or missed.
The daughter of John McCormick, the slain cabdriver, supported an exoneration for Tribble. Tribble’s is the third multimillion-dollar payout of its kind facing the District.
The District reached a $16.65 million settlement with Donald E. Gates, 64, after a D.C. federal jury found problems with hair match testimony and also that police had framed him for a 1981 rape and murder of a college student in Rock Creek Park. In the other similar case, a Superior Court judge ordered the city to pay $9.2 million to Kirk L. Odom, 53, wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in her Capitol Hill apartment in 1981. The city is appealing Odom’s award.
The Gates settlement alone exceeds what the city paid for all legal judgments and settlements in 2013, according to records released by the D.C. Office of Risk Management. From 2010 to 2014, the District settlement fund paid out $15 million to $33 million a year.
Mott noted that although current D.C. Council members have proposed capping damages in wrongful imprisonment cases, the law imposes no limits but requires a judge, not a jury, to decide fair compensation. The District in Tribble’s case asked the court to take into account the city’s financial exposure.
Mott wrote that when the D.C. Council passed the Unjust Imprisonment Act, members made clear that they sought to provide for a “narrow class” of claimants — there have been three since it took effect in 1980 — grounded “upon the principle of fundamental fairness . . . [calling] upon the District government to assume responsibility for the unjustified deprivation of a person’s liberty.”
“The court’s sole responsibility in this matter was to determine an amount of damages that will make Mr. Tribble whole,” Mott wrote.