Santae Tribble served 23 years in prison, with an additional five years for parole violations, in the murder and armed robbery of a D.C. cab driver that DNA testing later proved he did not commit.
On July 26, 1978, John McCormick, a 63-year-old white man, was robbed and shot with a 32-caliber handgun on the front porch on his home. The commotion awoke McCormick’s wife who heard her husband pleading for his life and then saw a lone assailant wearing a stocking mask and called police. Shortly after the crime, a canine officer and his dog recovered the stocking mask near the scene of the crime.
Earlier that month, another elderly white man, William Horn, had been shot and killed in an armed robbery with a similar modus operandi. Police believed that the same perpetrator had committed both murders.
The Investigation and Trial
Seventeen-year-old Santae Tribble was linked to the crime by an informant named Bobby Jean Phillips, although there were inconsistencies in her statements. Phillips’ testimony connected Tribble and his friend Cleveland Wright to a 32-caliber handgun similar to the one believed to have been used in the crimes. However, the actual gun was never recovered.
A second informant, Ronald Willis, said that Tribble admitted to involvement in the Horn murder. Willis made his statement while he was under investigation for an unrelated crime.
Tribble was tried for both murders, though he was acquitted of the Horn murder for lack of evidence. At the McCormick trial, he presented evidence that he had been out of the area staying at his mother’s home in Seat Pleasant, Maryland at the time. He and a half dozen witnesses testified to this alibi.
An FBI analyst testified that one of the hairs from the stocking mask linked Tribble to the crime and “matched in all microscopic characteristics.” The prosecution then emphasized this analysis in closing, saying that there was perhaps “one chance in ten million” that the hair could have belonged to anyone other than Tribble. Hair microscopy, an inexact science, cannot yield a “match;” the prosecutor exaggerated the analyst’s testimony and invented the impressive statistic.
In January 1980, Tribble was convicted of McCormick’s murder by a jury and sentenced to 20 years to life.
In 2003, Tribble was released on parole. In 2012, Tribble’s attorneys were successful in obtaining mitochondrial DNA testing on the 13 hairs recovered from the stocking mask. None of the hairs—including the alleged match—implicated Tribble or Wright. Further, the analysis revealed FBI analysts’ errors, including mistakenly calling a dog hair human.
In January 2012, Sandra Levick with Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia filed a motion seeking Tribble’s exoneration. On May 14, 2012,Washington, D.C. Superior Court Judge Laura Cordero signed an order vacating Tribble’s conviction and dismissing the underlying charges.
In response to the exoneration of Tribble and two other men, Donald Eugene Gates, and Kirk Odom, who were proven innocent through DNA testing after FBI analysis of hair evidence contributed to their wrongful convictions, the Justice Department and the FBI announced a joint effort in July 2012 to review convictions involving FBI analysis of hair evidence. The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will assist with the case review. The Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia represented all three men.
In December 2012, Judge Cordero granted Tribble a certificate of innocence.