News 07.15.20

How Santae Tribble’s Wrongful Conviction Prompted Review of the FBI’s Use of Hair Analysis and Inspired the Innocence Project’s Research

Santae Tribble passed away in June 2020. He enjoyed just eight years of freedom after being exonerated.

By Innocence Staff

Santae Tribble spent just 25 years of his life as a free person — three years less than he spent wrongfully incarcerated. Tribble was only 59 when he died following a long illness. He is survived by his son and two grandchildren.

Tribble was wrongfully convicted of a murder that took place in Washington, D.C., in 1978, and finally exonerated in 2012 through the work of Sandra Levick, then the head of the D.C., Public Defender Service’s special litigation division, and her team.

Tribble had so much life to live, and the Innocence Project extends its deepest sympathy to the Tribble family. We were heartbroken to learn of his passing on June 24, 2020, and heartbroken thinking about the handshakes, hugs, kisses, and the company of loved ones he was likely robbed of in his last months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But we continue our work in his honor. 

Tribble was wrongfully convicted largely based on the FBI’s misuse of hair microscopy. In Tribble’s trial, an FBI hair analyst testified that he had microscopically compared a hair found at the crime scene with reference hairs taken from Tribble, concluding that one of the hairs from the crime scene “matched” his and that there was only “one chance in 10 million” that the hair could belong to someone else. Today, we know that these analysts grossly exaggerated the significance of their findings not just in Tribble’s case, but in their reports and/or during trial testimony in hundreds of cases.

Their statements had bolstered the prosecution’s cases and ultimately led to many wrongful convictions. But it was Levick’s discovery that the FBI routinely exceeded the science and falsified probabilities of hair analysis in Tribble’s and three other cases that triggered the Innocence Project’s pressing of the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) to correct the falsehoods and notify affected defendants. 

The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), pushed for a review of all FBI cases — state and federal — where a defendant was convicted and FBI hair microscopy was used to implicate the accused. The Innocence Project and NACDL convinced the FBI to change their reports and testimony going forward to reflect the fact that, even where hairs seem microscopically indistinguishable, the FBI has no idea how rare or common those similarities are.    

A total of 3,000 cases in which FBI examiners had submitted reports or testified in trials involving microscopic hair analysis were identified. After reviewing the first 268 cases, the FBI acknowledged that its examiners had given erroneous statements that wrongly implicated the defendant in at least 90% of these cases. The DOJ acknowledged that the “errors” constituted false testimony. 

The review’s findings brought to light problems among FBI hair examiners that extended beyond just one or two examiners. In fact, 26 of the 28 examiners who worked on the cases reviewed were shown to have provided testimony or authored reports with erroneous statements. Moreover, since most state and local crime lab hair microscopists were trained by the FBI, several state audits were commenced. These findings highlighted systemic and cultural issues at the FBI that contributed to wrongful convictions and were in clear need of correcting.

So far, 16 people who were wrongly convicted based on the FBI’s misuse of hair analysis have had their convictions vacated, according to the NACDL. Ten of these people have been exonerated. 

To substantially reduce the likelihood that others will experience the same injustice as Tribble, we will continue to question and demand more from the government institutions that deprived Tribble of so much of his life and freedom. Tribble was not an Innocence Project client, but we will continue to be motivated by his life and memory. 

Rest easy, Santae.

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  1. Jean Fisher says:

    This explains why there are more people of color in prison in the US! I refuse to believe the justice system is fair!!! It’s another example of institutional racism along with education and medicine!!!

  2. Dennis Boyer says:

    The other convictions based soley on the hair analysis need to be overturned and a retrial set upon the evidence IF only it will mean a conviction.

Thanks for your comment

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