A 55-year-old man who was convicted based upon the now-discredited “science” of forensics hair analysis has been awarded $13.2 million by District of Columbia Superior Court Judge John M. Mott. This was just the latest in a long line of cases where pseudo-scientific testimony by the FBI crime lab resulted in the wrongful conviction of an innocent defendant.
Santae A. Tribble was 17 when he was convicted in 1978 of murdering a taxi driver. The attacker allegedly wore a silk stocking mask, and an FBI expert testified at trial that residual hairs in the mask matched those of Tribble. In fact, he said, it would be a “one in ten million” chance that the hairs did not belong to Tribble. Clearly there was no scientific basis for that opinion, but because the expert was employed with the FBI, his testimony was believed. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.1].
Tribble, in ill-health and suffering from a myriad of serious illnesses after serving over 30 years in prison, was exonerated in 2012 after advances in DNA testing finally cleared him and revealed the exaggerated claims of the FBI expert witness, which the U.S. Department of Justice termed “testimonial overstatement.”
Judge Mott’s February 2016 judgment in favor of Tribble was merely the latest massive sum awarded to prisoners in flawed hair analysis cases. Kirk L Odom, who was wrongfully convicted of rape, received $9.2 million, while Donald Gates, also wrongfully convicted of rape, was awarded $16.5 million. All received compensation as a result of the District of Columbia’s Unjust Imprisonment Act, which was enacted “upon the principle of fundamental fairness ... [and requires] the District government to assume responsibility for the unjustified deprivation of a person’s liberty,” Judge Mott wrote.
According to Mott, Tribble had a “journey of injustice [that] 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. [His] 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.”
Due to his serious medical conditions, including liver failure, Tribble is not expected to live beyond three more years.
The Justice Department is reportedly reviewing case files to see if more people might qualify for relief, as FBI forensics experts provided questionable testimony about hair analysis evidence in thousands of criminal cases nationwide.
“The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster,” said attorney Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project. “We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and the courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn’t stopped much sooner.”
Before this issue is put to rest it’s likely that many other wrongful convictions will be uncovered, resulting in more large damages awards. Tribble was represented by the New York law firm of Nuefeld, Scheck & Brustin, LLP. See: Tribble v. Greene, Superior Court for the District of Columbia, Case No. 2013 CA 003237B.
Additional sources: www.washingtonpost.com, Associated Press, www.bgr.com
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Related legal case
Tribble v. Greene
|Superior Court for the District of Columbia, Case No. 2013 CA 003237B
|State Supreme Court