Judge overturns conviction of man who served 28 years in prison on murder charge

Posted May 17, 2012, at 7:18 a.m.

WASHINGTON — A D.C. Superior Court judge has overturned the conviction of a District man who wrongly served 28 years in prison for the killing of a taxi driver.

Santae A. Tribble, 51, has maintained his innocence since the crime in 1978. In a telephone interview Tuesday morning, Tribble said: “I’m overjoyed. I always felt like it would happen, but it took so long I started to wonder.”

Although the judge threw out Tribble’s 1980 conviction and said he could not be tried on the charge again, the ruling does not exonerate him. An attorney for Tribble requested time to file papers and, if necessary, have a hearing next month to determine innocence.

DNA evidence and information from police files that was not disclosed at trial clear Tribble, his attorneys said.

“Mr. Tribble’s struggle for justice is not yet over. He will now seek a certificate of innocence from the court,” said Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C. Public Defender Service.

In a one-page court order signed Friday, filed Monday and received by Tribble’s attorneys late Tuesday, Judge Laura Cordero vacated his conviction and dismissed the underlying charges. She did not give an opinion on the case.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., citing DNA evidence, agreed last month to drop the murder charge against Tribble and not to try him again.

Tribble was found guilty of murdering a District cabdriver in an early morning robbery July 26, 1978. In April, The Washington Post featured Tribble’s case in a series of articles that reported that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people.

In addition, The Post reported that the Justice Department reviewed a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite indications that problems were far more widespread and might affect thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts.

As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide who remain in prison or on parole might merit exoneration or a retrial because FBI experts mistakenly linked them to hair or fiber evidence that should be reexamined, including up-to-date DNA testing.

In Tribble’s case, prosecutors and the FBI laboratory incorrectly linked a hair found near the murder scene to Tribble, according to recent DNA test results and The Post’s inquiry.

Machen’s office declined to comment, referring to its April 27 filing. In that filing, prosecutors said the DNA results raise substantial doubt about the defendant’s guilt. But they stopped short of joining his bid for exoneration.

Tribble has asked the court for full exoneration under the D.C. Innocence Protection Act.

He said that the judge’s order lifted a weight from his shoulders but that life is a “day-to-day struggle” since his release from prison. Tribble was arrested at 17 and, before the judge’s ruling, spent his entire adult life in prison or on parole.

Tribble served 25 years incarcerated for the killing, plus another three years for failing to meet his parole conditions. After leaving a halfway house in the fall, he is homeless and staying with friends as he looks for work.

He has worked odd jobs for a friend’s bus company and has tended to a man who is disabled, but he is seeking a full-time job.

“It’s hard to put this behind me,” Tribble said. “I stay with friends, but that could change from day to day at any time,” Tribble said. “I haven’t been able to land any permanent employment. Most of the work I have done has been in laboring, construction and landscaping. That’s probably what I’m qualified to do.”

Still, he said, he spent Wednesday “rejoicing” with relatives, including his son, Santae Tribble Jr., 20, who traveled from Waldorf to spend time with him.

“My living conditions, there’s a lot of things I have to work on, but I’m happy this part of it is over,” Tribble said. “I don’t have to report to a parole officer. The conviction is gone.”

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